Note: This review will almost entirely avoid spoilers. I mention three words from the opening crawl, and that’s about it as far as concrete plot points. So feel free to read on without fear that I will reveal to you Kylo Ren’s true identity. (It’s Jar Jar.) (Just kidding.) (Or am I?)
Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is the most Star Wars movie since the original Star Wars. It is a rollicking adventure set in space featuring numerous, fast-paced battles on ground and in the air. It is funny and lighthearted without being childish. It features evil villains and daring good guys and, if you let it, packs an emotional wallop. Those looking for a sci-fi action-adventure film about plucky young heroes going up against immense odds, well, have I got a movie for you!
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It also, frankly, doesn’t make a great deal of sense if you stop to think about it for more than a few moments after leaving the theater. The specific reasons why it doesn’t make a great deal of sense are hard to discuss without getting into plot points, so I’ll table that discussion for now; the movie still won’t make a great deal of sense next week and you deserve a chance to watch it untainted by my niggling complaints.
But you get a whiff of the troubled logic of the film in the opening crawl. We are informed that the REPUBLIC has been reborn and that there is a RESISTANCE doing battle with the remnant of the Empire, now known as the FIRST ORDER (caps in the original). As the words ascend up the screen and fade into the distance, your brow might furrow. If the Republic has been reestablished, then what is the Resistance resisting? Wouldn’t the Resistance simply be the army of the Republic? Have the Republic and the First Order declared some sort of tacit truce, one rejected by more radical elements of the old Rebellion? Is the Resistance working outside the framework of galactic law, as "resistance" groups tend to be?
None of these questions are answered. Indeed, none of these questions are even addressed, really. It seems that the lesson that director J.J. Abrams (who cowrote along with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) and new studio Disney have taken from the prequels is that galactic politics should be ignored, full stop, lest the pea brains in the audience get confused by concepts more complicated that LIGHT GOOD, DARK BAD.
To be fair: They’re not wrong! LIGHT GOOD, DARK BAD is probably preferable to TRADE ROUTES ARE BEING BLOCKADED BY SITHS POSING AS POLITICIANS MANIPULATING TAXATION IN ORDER TO FOMENT CHAOS IN THE SENATE AND CONSOLIDATE POWER AND WIPE OUT THE JEDI AND … etc. But there has to be a happy median, one that Abrams and Co. has, I think, failed to achieve.
In the theater, though, I’m not sure this will really matter to fans excited to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) teaming up with newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) to do battle with the helmet-clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and the raving First Order leader General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Oh, and there’s a great new droid, BB-8!
The performances are all quite good, with the possible exception of Gleeson’s manic turn; those of us who prefer the banality of evil as represented by Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin will likely wince at the spittle-flecked, Hitlerian Hux. If it sounds like there are a lot of characters here … well, there are. The Force Awakens is nothing if not crowded and the film’s 136 minutes zip by all too quickly; we spend such little screen time with so many important characters that small things like "emotional investment" are given short shrift in favor of battles galore.
The Force Awakens is fun. I’m not sure that it’s great, though. And I am quite sure that it’s not as great as the series at its best.
But on the heels of the prequels, well, maybe fun is all we really need.