Star Wars: The Force Awakens review - Russell Newquist

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

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tfa_poster_wide_header-1536x864-959818851016The Force Awakens was a very surreal experience for me, and explaining my opinions on the film require a bit of a preface.

I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in 1978 – a little more than a year after the release of A New Hope. My earliest movie memory is watching The Empire Strikes Back in theaters. I barely remember it. I grew up watching the films on my parents’ old Betamax VCR. It’s a wonder I didn’t wear the tapes out from watching them so often. I certainly wore out my sister’s patience.

When the special editions were released in theaters in the late 90s, I was right there – lining up early for prime showings, huge crowds of friends with me. I had a Jedi costume that I’d put together a few years prior – a large group of my high school friends had done a Star Wars themed Halloween one year, and I picked Obi-Wan.

I wore that costume again when I camped out for the prequels. I was literally the second person in line at our local theater for The Phantom Menace. For a long time I had ticket stub #4 to prove it (the gentlemen with me bought three tickets). By morning, we had attracted rather a crowd – including a father and son who had flown in from Ireland so that they could catch the film on the US release date instead of the European release date.

Despite my disappointment with The Phantom Menace, I camped out for the other prequels as well. My not-yet-wife even joined me in line for Revenge of the Sith. And I have to say – watching all three of those movies was an absolute blast, despite all three being ultimately disappointing. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re with a crowd that enthusiastic.

This time around there was no camping. My wife and I have three young children. The oldest might have been old enough to take out with us for it, but it would’ve been a stretch. Camping would have required childcare. Also, forgive me here, but what’s the point? With online ticket purchasing, there’s no reason to camp out in line to get the first tickets anymore.

However, I did get to see it in a great group. My very awesome boss bought out an entire theater for our company. We had to wait until Saturday morning, but I also brought my two older children. The youngest stayed with Grandpa for the morning, which he loved.

So the actual experience of watching the film was a bit surreal. This was the first Star Wars since 1983 that I hadn’t camped out for, that I wasn’t at the absolute first showing for. And I was there with friends and coworkers – all very excited – but it still lacked the energy of those over-the-top fans.

And then, the movie itself. It’s true what they say – you can’t go home again. For me, the movie lacked both the freshness of the original (I never knew a world without Star Wars – but I’ve watched enough pre-1977 movies to know just how much Star Wars changed film) and the pent up anticipation of the prequels. Unlike The Phantom Menace, it hadn’t been 20 years since the last film in the series.

Also, it wasn’t George Lucas anymore. My final opinion is that this is both good and bad, but there was a very different feel to the films. Say what you want about the prequels, they definitely have a sense of feel that they share with the original films. To me, that was a bit jarring. This Star Wars is different.

So what do I think of the film? There’s a lot to like in it. It’s the Star Wars that a lot of fans wanted. But it’s also not a perfect film, and it’s not quite the Star Wars that I wanted. It took me all weekend to decide what I ultimately think of the film, and at the end of the day my verdict is still unsatisfying – because my opinion of this film ultimately depends on what they do with the rest of this new trilogy. Tentatively, I give it a thumbs up – a strong thumbs up. But this film leaves enough unresolved that the next two films could actually greatly ruin this one if they’re not handled properly.

A more spoilerific analysis is below the jump.

Spoilers Below

On Monday morning I finally nailed exactly what it was that bothered me about the film. When I say that, realize that I’d laid out a bunch of issues to my wife literally as soon as the drive home. But those things were small potatoes (more about them below), and I knew they weren’t really why the film didn’t quite settle right with me. They were all things that I could easily overlook.

What really bothered me about the film – and still does, to a degree – is the male leads. With the exception of Poe Dameron, the awesome fighter pilot (and he is awesome – one of the better characters in a movie that really nails characters), every single male lead in this film is running away from something. Not in a physical sense (although there is that, too) but in a moral sense. However, in each case there are mitigating circumstances, and this allows me to move past this and like the film – if and only if they handle the third one correctly in the next films.

First: Finn. His is the most excusable and the most honest, and he was the easiest character in the film for me to like. First he’s running from the First Order. He’s seen too much, he’s had enough, and he wants out. Then he’s running from the Resistance as well. He doesn’t want anything to do with that. He also, however, has the quickest and easiest redemption from this flaw. When Rey is in trouble, he turns around and heads right back into the fray.

Second: Han Solo. Everyone’s favorite rogue begins the movie after having run away from his son. I can see it with the character, but as a father it just doesn’t sit right with me. When your kids are in trouble, you don’t just run away from them. Mitigating this, however, is the consideration… what do you do when your son basically turns into Darth Vader? Especially if you’re really just this ordinary guy? What could he honestly have done? Also, at every point in the movie where people are in danger, Han runs into danger to help them – not away from it. This is a substantial character growth from the first trilogy. More importantly, Han gets the biggest redemption of all the male leads. Look at his face when he steps out on that bridge. He knows damn well what’s about to happen to him, yet he goes out there anyway.

Third: The elephant in the room, Luke Skywalker. The only living Jedi in the galaxy, with the responsibility to reform the order and continue it. This guy literally carries the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders – and as soon as the going gets tough, he sets it down. The movie strongly implies two different reasons why he disappeared. It’s stated at one point that he left after one of his students lost it and killed all the others – he simply couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s also stated, at another point, that he left to seek out answers from the first Jedi temple.

It’s possible that both reasons are correct. Indeed, real people rarely do anything for just one reason. We’re not that simple. But to me, everything for this film hinges on how they handle Skywalker in the rest of the trilogy. If they put the emphasis on that first reason – he just couldn’t handle it – then I’m done. I get it. It’s realistic. But it’s not heroic, and I’m not interested in having my childhood heroes further deconstructed. But if the put the emphasis on the second – that he’s searching for answers, trying to figure out how to fix everything… that I can buy. It’s not my favorite way of doing it, but I can live with it.

Once I understood that that was my main issue, I can give this movie a tentative thumbs up. Oh, it has other issues. The near carbon copy of A New Hope‘s story, the my-penis-is-bigger-than-yours bigger, badder “Death Star,” how do Rey and Finn manage to avoid cutting off their own limbs despite no training with a lightsaber?

But it also has some strong stuff in it. The original trilogy is about a son confronting his evil father, trying to bring him to redemption. The way they flipped that on its head and made it about a father confronting his evil son… that’s powerful. Unfortunately, it’s also criminally underused, and that is the reason I’m bothered that they killed Han Solo. That theme would’ve been better developed over the entire trilogy. On the other hand, Harrison Ford is old. So maybe they did what they needed to do. Also, it gave us the really bad-ass moment of Chewie going berserker, and that was epic.

Also, the one thing that this film absolutely did not do was repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The mistakes that it has are its own, and the filmmakers did learn.

Ultimately this is a film that I definitely want to see again, and it leaves me with hope for the rest of this trilogy. At the same time… I didn’t leave it with the same love that I have for the original trilogy.

But that’s probably something that no new Star Wars could ever recapture.

Russell Newquist

My name is Russell Newquist. I am a software engineer, a martial artist, an author, an editor, a businessman and a blogger. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and a Master of Science degree in Computer Science, but I'm technically a high school dropout. I also think that everything in this paragraph is pretty close to meaningless. I work for a really great small company in Huntsville, Alabama building really cool software. I'm the owner and head instructor of Madison Martial Arts Academy, which I opened in 2013 less to make money and more because I just really enjoy a good martial arts workout with friends. I'm the editor in chief of Silver Empire and also one of the published authors there. And, of course, there is this blog - and all of its predecessors. There's no particular reason you should trust anything I say any more than any other source. So read it, read other stuff, and think for your damn self - if our society hasn't yet over-educated you to the point that you've forgotten how.

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