Seriously, there's going to be so many spoilers in this post.
No kidding, I literally write out the plot at one point, so I say again:
DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE.
Still here? Ok... you've been warned.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Return To A Familiar World
I was very excited, three years ago, when I heard that Disney had bought Lucasfilm, and they were planning to make new Star Wars films - I love the SW universe, and was thoroughly pleased to hear that we were getting more stories set in the galaxy far, far away. Having grown up during the prequel era, I'd never seen a SW film in the cinema that the majority of the world actually liked (by the way, if you're planning to show your kids the Star Wars movies some day, and are not sure about what order to do it in, don't go with order I saw them in: 1, 6, 4, 5, 2, 3, 7 - really ruins the major plot twists!!). This has led to me building up a great deal of anticipation in the time since - as the world got excited about this new generation of films - to the extent that when I finally sat down to watch Episode VII - The Force Awakens on Thursday night, I was close to vibrating in my seat.
I've spent the two days since trying to work out my feelings on the movie, as I was very confused by my reaction to it. I left feeling disappointed, and didn't really know why. I was eating it up with a spoon as it was happening; the pacing of the film is spectacular and it moves along so quickly that it's physically impossible to get bored at any point. The opening crawl is excellent. The opening line of "Luke Skywalker has vanished" is an incredible hook, and a huge grin spread across my face as I read it. The characters are fascinating, and I want to know more about every single one of them (Maz Kanata, alone, is an anthology film waiting to happen). It's really funny - I can't fault the humour in it, at all - and BB8 is comfortably the galaxy's most expressive and engaging droid. The John Williams music is good - nothing really stood out to me on first viewing, but I think that might be the sign of a great score - it elevated the movie without pulling focus. The special effects are brilliant; the universe feels tactile and "lived in" again. The dialogue feels natural and snappy, and the chemistry between the old and new cast leaps off the screen - especially the relationship between Finn & Rey; within three scenes I was invested in what I presume is the new romantic story-line (for obvious reasons, I can't imagine they're going to turn out to be brother & sister this time around). I want to be friends with John Boyega, now, cause he seems like a fun dude, and I've a huge new crush on Daisy Ridley; the pair of them are a great big mountain of charisma.
So if all of that is great, why am I disappointed? It took me the 30-minute drive home to realise why - it's NOT a new story. New characters, yes; new dialogue, yes; but they're draped over a framework we already know. I've read reviews that say "it borrows elements from A New Hope", but it's more than that; the story-beats line up to A New Hope almost perfectly. If you don't believe me, watch me describe two movies with one plot outline.
The first of our three young heroes heads to a desert planet with a mission to find a lost Jedi. Having received valuable information, (s)he is captured by Stormtroopers and their dark-side force-wielding leader in a mask. In order to keep the information away from his/her captors, the data is hidden within a droid, who is sent to hide on the desert planet and keep the information safe.
We now meet the second of our three young heroes, who has been living on the desert planet since childhood, without his/her parents. This character is an excellent pilot, but is frustrated by the lack of excitement in his/her life, but (s)he can't leave the planet, for family reasons. Shortly after meeting the droid(s), an attack from the Stormtroopers changes this, and (s)he suddenly realises that (s)he has to get off planet. (S)he meets the third of our heroes, who's looking to escape a dangerous situation that he doesn't want to be in. Together, they leave the desert planet aboard the Millennium Falcon, along with the help of an aging war hero from the preceding trilogy of films.
Elsewhere, aboard a giant spherical planet-destroying battle station, the Stormtroopers' leader decides to demonstrate the firepower at his disposal by blowing up a planet (or several) that is of significance to the rebellion/resistance.
Having received knowledge about the Force, our heroes decide to rescue the female hero who is being held prisoner aboard the giant spherical planet-destroying battle station. This decision is led by one of our new young heroes because he has a crush on the female hero. Having completed this escape, somebody ends up in a trash-compactor.
Meanwhile, the aging war hero from the preceding trilogy goes to lower the power to the tractor beam/energy shields, and then goes to confront the dark-side force-wielding leader in a mask. As the young heroes watch on, the dark-side force-wielding leader in a mask kills the aging war hero with his lightsaber. There's then a brief fight in which no-one else significant on either side dies, and then the young heroes and Chewbacca escape, again, on the Millennium Falcon.
After a surprisingly short briefing on the rebel/resistance base, a squadron of X-Wing Fighters are dispatched to blow up the giant spherical planet-destroying battle station, before it can blow up their base - their mission might have failed were it not for the last minute assistance of Han Solo. The battle station is destroyed, though the key villains survive for the next installment, and two of the light-side characters lament the fact that the aging war hero isn't with them anymore.
The final shot of the movie sees Luke Skywalker looking pleased.
They're the same damn story!
The funny thing is, in my opinion, The Force Awakens actually does a better job of being A New Hope, than A New Hope did. It's tighter, funnier, better paced, and possibly more compelling. The problem with that is that this isn't meant to be a reboot; it's a sequel - and if I'm getting a sequel, I don't want a story I've been told before. I've heard people arguing that this episode mimics real life, and how "history repeats itself" when we don't learn from the mistakes of the past, and I'd be happy to go along with that, if any of the characters had made reference to the fact that "it's happening again". Leia, Han, C-3PO, Ackbar, etc - any of the characters around the Resistance's conference table could've made this point, and I might've been happier with the symmetry, but instead, it just seemed lazy. I was reminded of a scene from The West Wing where President Bartlet is struggling with the merits of the military's "proportional response", asking his Chief of Staff, Leo, "what's the point of blowing those buildings up? They'll just rebuild them in six months!" To which Leo replies, "Then we'll blow them up again in six months! We're getting really good at it." This is now the third time in seven movies that the heroes have blown up a giant spherical planet-destroying space station - they are getting very good at it. Maybe I wouldn't have taken such issue with this if we hadn't already had a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, but because we had, I found myself thinking, "really, this again?" Say what you want about the prequels, but there was a different threat in each film.
I watch a youtube show called Collider Jedi Council, and two of its regulars - Kristian Harloff & John Campea - often talk about how they don't want the anthology films to make the universe smaller by utilising characters we already know; you've got a whole galaxy to play with, so explore something new. Similarly, I don't understand how - with a galaxy of characters this big, and with this number of potentials tales you could tell - you sit down to a blank page, and fill it with a story we've already been told. That's mind-boggling to me. You could've done anything! Any new adventure, but you end up with a re-telling. At the very least, you could disguise the elements that mirror the original. Does Jakku have to be a desert planet like Tatooine? Does Starkiller Base have to be a giant spherical battle station like the Death Star? Did the X-Wing Fighters have to blow up the base rather than just cripple it? (Probably, yes. Bloody dangerous, that thing). Now, look, I acknowledge that the technology to blow up a planet exists within the SW universe, and so any tyrannical organisation will keep trying to rebuild that technology to use its power to subjugate their enemies, no matter how many times it gets destroyed. But I've seen three different attempts now - how can it have a glaring weakness EVERY TIME?!
Other than that, I only had one more problem with the movie, and that was the way Han died. They couldn't have telegraphed it any more if they'd tried. Anyone who's ever seen a movie knows that you don't walk out on a narrow bridge to face an enemy without something bad happening. It seemed like an incredibly idiotic way for Han to go out; surely he'd have seen that coming?! Because it's Harrison Ford, I had to resist the temptation to yell out "COVER YOUR HEART, INDY! COVER YOUR HEART!" I don't even think it should've happened in this film. It really highlighted to me that Ford must have only agreed to do the movie on the condition that he wouldn't have had to do another one (and he thought Han should've died in Return of the Jedi, so he's been trying to make this happen since 1983), but to me, it seemed like an Episode 8 move. If he'd survived his initial encounter with Kylo Ren in this film (let's say, he was just about to convince Ben to leave with him, when the X-Wing's attack breaks the bridge, and the two are separated), then when they met again in episode 8, Han (and the audience) would've been confident that Ben could be talked around, so when he then DOES kill Han, the death would've been more impactful, and heartbreaking. I'm also annoyed that we were robbed of the chance to see Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie on screen together again, but I can get over all of this - it just seemed like a wasted opportunity.
Other than these points, I really enjoyed the film. It's got a lot of great stuff in it, and I like that we didn't get all the answers in this first outing - Lucasfilm are playing the long game, and leaving various elements unclear for use in future installments. Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Why has Luke been in hiding rather than facing up to his responsbility? Does he still have his green lightsaber (I hope so)? And is Rey Luke's daughter? Surely she must be - natural pilot, force strong, and her [would-be] grandfather/father's lightsaber calls to her. Plus, she still doesn't have a surname, so if it isn't Skywalker, I'll be very disappointed, because I want the cousin vs cousin duel (concurrent with Luke vs Snoke) in Episode 9.
All in all, yes, it's a great Star Wars movie, which I'm definitely going to see again (and possibly a few more times after that) - I just wish that after all these years of waiting, we'd got something slightly more original in narrative terms.