I saw it with Lisa over the weekend and we did enjoy ourselves. The Force Awakens benefits enormously by comparison to the prequels, and we’d made a conscious decision to not think too hard and just have fun, so long as it didn’t totally suck, which it didn’t. But afterwards, when we switched our brains back on and started talking about it, we realized there was a lot of stuff that either didn’t work for us or should have been better.
The main issue is that the film tries to do too much: Introduce a slew of new characters, bring back the old cast for an encore, atone for the prequels, lay the groundwork for future films, deliver as much fan service as possible, etc., etc., with the result that the actual story ends up being repeatedly shortchanged. There were characters and plot points that felt more like placeholders for future development: “There’s not much here now, but come back for Episode VIII (or IX) and you’ll be amazed!”
* Lisa and I agree that Rey was the best part of the movie and the core of what could have been a much stronger film. Not surprisingly, she’s got the most complete character arc, and the stuff that’s left hanging—Is she Luke’s daughter? Why did he abandon her?—felt like it was OK left hanging.
* I liked Finn, but his back story doesn’t fit the character we see on screen. He’s way too normal and emotionally well-adjusted for someone who’s been raised since childhood to be a nameless stormtrooper. What he acts like is an ordinary guy who went through the wrong door at the military recruiting center, accidentally joined the Space Nazis, and deserted when he realized they weren’t just being ironic with the swastikas.
* One online suggestion that I liked: Instead of having Rey and Finn stumble across the Millennium Falcon and conveniently bump into Han Solo ten minutes later, Han should have been living on Tatooine 2.0 from the beginning, with Rey as his apprentice and/or foster kid. That would have linked the new and old casts from the start, brought Harrison Ford in earlier (definitely a good idea), and saved several minutes of screen time that could then have been spent on other things.
* Midway through the film, Lisa leaned over to me and whispered, “Is that the guy from Ex Machina?” Yep, Poe is played by Oscar Isaac, who was also Nathan in Ex Machina. (And General Hux is Caleb!)
He’s a great actor, but in this movie he’s playing a type—Charmingly Rogueish Space Guy of Indefinite Origin—rather than a person, and his arc is both predictable and emotionally hollow: I knew immediately that he’d survived the TIE fighter crash and that he’d show up later to save Finn, but even if I’d been wrong it wouldn’t have mattered, because I wasn’t invested enough in the character to care whether he lived or died.
* And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Darth Vader Lite. Adam Driver is another really good actor, but an actor I associate strongly with his role on Girls, so my first thought when he took his mask off was, “You cast Hannah Horvath’s boyfriend for this? That’s… a bold choice.”
His association with Lena Dunham aside, I just didn’t find him that sinister (a problem shared by the film’s other villains). His back story—he’s Leia and Han’s son, and he was Luke’s Jedi pupil until he went Dylan Klebold on his classmates—is delivered entirely through exposition. The original Star Wars did that with Vader’s back story, too, but the difference is, Vader was fricking terrifying even before Obi-Wan explained who he was. Where Vader snapped necks and force-choked people, Kylo expresses rage by hacking up computer workstations with his light saber. Not that scary.
His best scenes are the ones where he goes up against Rey, particularly the one where he tries to Force-read her mind and instead triggers her nascent Jedi powers (which is communicated to the audience without a word of exposition—nice!). Even there, though, he comes off as more pathetic than dangerous. And giving Rey an antagonist who’s so clearly her inferior makes her story less compelling.
* The fact that we’re told about Kylo’s back story rather than shown it also made Han Solo’s death much less affecting. I should have been gutted by that scene—Han murdered! By his son!—but my actual thought process when he stepped out on the bridge was more like: “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say old Han was about to get a light saber in the chest, here… Would the Disney suits really have signed off on that?… Gosh, I guess so!”
Until he got his pink slip, Harrison Ford was great, and again, I wish he’d had more screen time. It was nice seeing Carrie Fisher again too, but she didn’t have anything to do—her main role in the film was to react passively to what other characters were doing, which struck me as a very poor storytelling choice. Why not send her with Han to try to save their kid, and let her work out her grief with a blaster?
* So the bad guys built another Death Star and the good guys blew it up. How many times have we seen that, now? Yes, it’s iconic, and if you’re doing a Star Wars remake/reboot/fan service delivery vehicle, you kind of have to include it, but… do you? Really? I mean: It’s bigger! It eats stars for fuel! It can destroy multiple planets in one shot! And I kinda didn’t care.
* Other story elements that seemed either pointless or wasted opportunities: C-3PO and his mysterious red arm; R2-D2 and R2-BB Pellet; Brienne of Stormtroopia; whatever the hell that big thing on the throne was (Snape? Snoopy?).
* It did end well: the closing scene with Rey meeting Luke Skywalker (Dad?) was genuinely affecting, and Lisa suggests that it made the whole film seem better than it was. Now that the hand-off between generations is complete, I’m hoping that the next episode—written and directed by Rian Johnson, yeah!—will be better. But even if it isn’t, of course I’ll go see it. And try not to think too hard.