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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Editor’s Note: We’re presenting the following movie review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in two parts. The first, immediately below, is spoiler-free. At the end of the spoiler-free review, you’ll find a promotional image from the film, which serves as the divider, and then immediately following the image, you will find the second version, which does contain spoilers. So if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll want to just skip to the second version; if you haven’t seen the movie, you will probably want to stick with this first one (unless you don’t care about spoilers).


The Burden of the Past
(Spoiler-Free Version)

Never has there been more cultural baggage and commentary surrounding a single film release. How does one even begin to review it, given all that history?

Do I start with the personal—my long and geeky relationship with this franchise? (I dressed in costume for the Episode I premiere. ’Nuff said.) That seems to be the standard accepted internet mode of talking about Star Wars. Do I talk about the cultural impact of Star Wars in general? That seems to be the more academic, detached formula to follow. Do I even mention the prequels, their disappointment, and the weight of expectation they’ve placed on this new movie? Or do I simply try to approach it as I would any other movie?

This is a case where the story and the metastory surrounding the film align in interesting ways. Both narratives involve the weight of history, larger-than-life legends, and mistakes made that will either be overcome or will drag everything down into a morass. Nobody can seem to talk about The Force Awakens without discussing thirty-five years of previous Star Wars history, just as Kylo Ren, the main villain in The Force Awakens, tells Darth Vader’s melted, distorted helmet that he vows to finish what his predecessor started. It’s almost like it’s a metaphor or something! We’re not really dealing with a circle here, but a Möbius, that twists around and still somehow brings us back to where we started.

So, how did I approach this movie? Turns out, I went for the simple: I asked myself, What does a good Star Wars movie look like, in my eyes? I made a list:

  • Amazing feats of derring-do. (Check.)
  • Engaging characters who are brave and charming. (Our new trio: Rey, Finn, Poe. They’ll do.)
  • Engaging alien characters. (Maz! Portrayed via motion-capture by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. Also, Chewbacca probably has more to do, and more to emote, in this one film than all the others put together. He was a pleasant revelation.)
  • Banter. (“Why do you keep taking my hand?!”)
  • Sense of wonder. Planetscapes and spaceships. An epic sense of story. (We’ll just wrap this all up together, and say there’s something to be had here.)
  • Innocence and optimism. (This movie has 1000% more hugging than the prequel trilogy. I love every single hug in this.)
  • Respect for the original trilogy’s story, but with something new. Show me corners of this universe that I’ve wondered about but haven’t seen yet. Build on the world without bashing holes in what came before. (Check.)
  • I want a movie that makes me happy. (I had to think a little bit about whether or not this movie achieves that, but I believe the answer is yes.)

So that’s it, folks: We have ourselves an actual Star Wars movie. There’s more to it than that, of course. And there’s still the question of the past, and how The Force Awakens can’t get away from it.

The briefest synopsis: Luke Skywalker, last of the Jedi, holds the key to stopping a conflict threatening to tear the galaxy apart. Trouble is, no one knows where he is. He’s gone full hermit. A personable little droid holds a map to his location—if only it can get to the allies before it is found by the enemy, the cultish remnants of the Old Empire called the First Order, ostensibly led by a young Force-adept named Kylo Ren who worships the memory of Darth Vader. An unlikely pair of characters gets drawn into the quest: a scavenger girl with a murky past named Rey, who is an excellent pilot and an awakening Force-adept; and a former stormtrooper named Finn who isn’t sure where his place in the galaxy really is. What follows is a story filled with battles, aliens, great escapes, and dark revelations. Pretty much everything that belongs in a Star Wars movie, and nobody stops the action to talk about trade embargos. (And that is the last I will speak of the prequel trilogy, possibly forever.)

My first impression is that J.J. Abrams took the Star Wars trope box, slapped a dial on it, and screamed, “It goes all the way to eleven!” It’s hard to know whether to be annoyed that so many things in this movie are so overly familiar—or ecstatic that all our favorite things are here and looking oh-so-pretty. Ultimately, the film is treading a fine line between nostalgic and derivative, and whether you think it succeeds or fails seems to be a matter of individual preference. For my part, I choose to see the derivative moments as mythic. Patterns repeat in different ways. Mistakes repeat, and maybe it will take a new crew of characters to make things right.

Which brings me to the thing the movie indisputably does well: presents a cast of fresh-faced new characters who are impossible not to love. Fifteen minutes away from the theater afterwards, I realized I desperately want to know what happens to these people next. Even Kylo Ren and smarmy General Hux (this movie’s answer to Grand Moff Tarkin). Also, the film passes the Bechdel test. This is Star Wars for the twenty-first century.

The real question is: What’s next? The film used so many pieces/parts from the original trilogy, but it ended up in a different place, I think. So what now? I’m going to go with the camp that says this film was necessarily overly familiar—so it could lure us in and make us comfortable.

And, now, once again, we can trust in the Force.

My initial criteria for a good Star Wars movie have been met, but the ultimate test is going to be the test of time. What will I think of this movie in five years? In ten? Will I be vowing to never speak of it again? Or will I still be crying when I watch it, the way I still cry at the original Episode IV?

I’m anxious to find out. For now, the film did exactly what it needed to do: remind us why we fell in love with this world in the first place, and—like Han Solo says in all those previews—make us feel like we’re home.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Movie Poster


Editor’s Note: The following version of the review contains MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Read at your own peril!


The Burden of the Past
(Contains Spoilers)

Never has there been more cultural baggage and commentary surrounding a single film release. How does one even begin to review it, given all that history?

Do I start with the personal—my long and geeky relationship with this franchise? (I dressed in costume for the Episode I premiere. ’Nuff said.) That seems to be the standard accepted internet mode of talking about Star Wars. Do I talk about the cultural impact of Star Wars in general? That seems to be the more academic, detached formula to follow. Do I even mention the prequels, their disappointment, and the weight of expectation they’ve placed on this new movie? Or do I simply try to approach it as I would any other movie?

This is a case where the story and the metastory surrounding the film align in interesting ways. Both narratives involve the weight of history, larger-than-life legends, and mistakes made that will either be overcome or will drag everything down into a morass. Nobody can seem to talk about The Force Awakens without discussing thirty-five years of previous Star Wars history, just as Kylo Ren, the main villain in The Force Awakens, tells Darth Vader’s melted, distorted helmet that he vows to finish what his predecessor started. It’s almost like it’s a metaphor or something! We’re not really dealing with a circle here, but a Möbius, that twists around and still somehow brings us back to where we started.

So, how did I approach this movie? Turns out, I went for the simple: I asked myself, What does a good Star Wars movie look like, in my eyes? I made a list:

  • Amazing feats of derring-do. (Check. Rey’s escape may be one of my favorites.)
  • Engaging characters who are brave and charming. (Our new trio: Rey, Finn, Poe. They’ll do.)
  • Engaging alien characters. (Maz! Portrayed via motion-capture by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o. Also, Chewbacca probably has more to do, and more to emote, in this one film than all the others put together. He was a pleasant revelation.)
  • Banter. (“Why do you keep taking my hand?!”)
  • Sense of wonder. Planetscapes and spaceships. An epic sense of story. (We’ll just wrap this all up together, and say there’s something to be had here.)
  • Innocence and optimism. (Rey and Finn find each other by chance and cling to each other because neither one has ever had a real friend before. It’s a heartfelt relationship. This movie has 1000% more hugging than the prequel trilogy. I love every single hug in this.)
  • Respect for the original trilogy’s story, but with something new. Show me corners of this universe that I’ve wondered about but haven’t seen yet. Build on the world without bashing holes in what came before. (You know what I’ve always wanted to see in a Star Wars movie that this movie gave me? Heroes stealing a TIE fighter. “This is very complicated!”)
  • I want a movie that makes me happy. (I had to think a little bit about whether or not this movie achieves that, but I believe the answer is yes.)

So that’s it, folks: We have ourselves an actual Star Wars movie. There’s more to it than that, of course. And there’s still the question of the past, and how The Force Awakens can’t get away from it.

The briefest synopsis: Luke Skywalker, last of the Jedi, holds the key to stopping a conflict threatening to tear the galaxy apart. Trouble is, no one knows where he is. He’s gone full hermit. A personable little droid holds a map to his location—if only it can get to the allies before it is found by the enemy, the cultish remnants of the Old Empire called the First Order, ostensibly led by a young Force-adept named Kylo Ren who worships the memory of Darth Vader. An unlikely pair of characters gets drawn into the quest: a scavenger girl with a murky past named Rey, who is an excellent pilot and an awakening Force-adept; and a former stormtrooper named Finn who isn’t sure where his place in the galaxy really is. What follows is a story filled with battles, aliens, great escapes, and dark revelations. Pretty much everything that belongs in a Star Wars movie, and nobody stops the action to talk about trade embargos. (And that is the last I will speak of the prequel trilogy, possibly forever.)

My first impression is that J.J. Abrams took the Star Wars trope box, slapped a dial on it, and screamed, “It goes all the way to eleven!” Here’s a desert planet that’s even more desert-y and remote than Tatooine! You like the Death Star? We’ll give you an entire planet that’s been turned into a Death Star, and it doesn’t just kill planets, it destroys entire systems of planets! You want a father-son confrontation on a catwalk above a gaping chasm? Here it is, turned to eleven!

Yes. Well. About that. No, Mr. Abrams, your father and son on a catwalk over a chasm scene does not quite outdo the previous one, for lots of reasons, but I’ll give you a B+ for effort. More about that scene in a bit, because it’s the one all those rabid spoiler warnings were there for.

It’s hard to know whether to be annoyed that so many things in this movie are so overly familiar—or ecstatic that all our favorite things are here and looking oh-so-pretty. Ultimately, the film is treading a fine line between nostalgic and derivative, and whether you think it succeeds or fails seems to be a matter of individual preference. For my part, I choose to see the derivative moments as mythic. Patterns repeat in different ways. Mistakes repeat, and maybe it will take a new crew of characters to make things right.

Which brings me to the thing the movie indisputably does well: presents a cast of fresh-faced new characters who are impossible not to love. Fifteen minutes away from the theater afterwards, I realized I desperately want to know what happens to these people next. Even Kylo Ren and smarmy General Hux (this movie’s answer to Grand Moff Tarkin). Also, the film passes the Bechdel test. This is Star Wars for the twenty-first century.

Back to that catwalk-over-a-chasm, I very much want to talk about that moment. You know the one. Han Solo confronts his and Leia’s son—(And can I just say how happy I am the movie never tried to hide the fact that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son? It’s pretty much out there right from the start so we can move on to other business.)—because Han (or at least Leia) believes there’s still good in him. (See what I mean about this lurking familiarity running through the whole movie?) And Kylo runs him through with his lightsaber. (By killing his own father, he does what Luke couldn’t—another echo.) Yes, that happens, and the scene annoyed me. Not because it happened at all, but that the moment was telegraphed so broadly that my writer-brain was shouting “Just do it already!” It was a bit anticlimactic, which the death of a character of that stature should not have been.

The thing is, I believe it’s a moment that needs to happen. This movie demands a death, and Han Solo is standing in that place in the story. Star Wars kills its mentor figures, because losing a mentor is a hero’s next step into a larger world. No one in any of the Star Wars movies has needed a mentor more than Rey and Finn do, and they’re so excited to have the legendary Han Solo as theirs—and then he’s gone.

I’ll tell you what, though: Two of my very favorite moments in the film are the ones that bookend Han’s death. The moment before, when I’m thinking of how Jedi change their names when they turn to the Dark side, and Han and Leia surely didn’t name him Kylo, so what did they name him? Will they throw a bone to the former Expanded Universe books and take a name from there? Or make up an entirely new name—but that doesn’t feel right, does it? And then Han shouts out exactly the name I want him to shout out when he calls to his son. And Kylo—Ben—stops. That’s a moment that honors the films that came before, honors the fandom, and yet gives me something new enough to jolt my spine. That’s a scene that successfully balances the weight of history with its own story.

Then there’s the moment some ways after, when Leia is there to greet Rey, and while everyone else is celebrating, they share a moment of vast and wordless pain. I didn’t cry when Han died, but I cried like a freaking baby during this scene because this was the payoff: a passing of the torch. There’s something beautiful and visceral about seeing Leia holding tight to the heroine of the next generation, and Rey acknowledging the path she’s on. God, I’m crying right now writing this.

I wasn’t sure I was at all interested in Kylo Ren at first, but I find him growing on me. His story makes sense to me: After all, has there ever been a kid who grew up with a more daunting set of shadows looming over him? Han, Leia, Luke, and an entire Republic basically expecting him to be super awesome? Geez, I’d put on a mask and change my name, too. And then maybe try to find out more about that one family member nobody ever talks about. But what next? He took the step he can’t back away from. He also has some sort of connection to Rey, now. What will happen with that? I have some ideas, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Most of all, though, I love having a young woman standing in the hero’s place in a Star Wars story. She’s a pilot. She’s clever. She’s an orphan. The only thing she has to go on in learning about the Force is the old legends she’s heard—just like Luke. Rey as the central character on the hero’s journey here feels right. The movie ends at exactly the right moment: She confronts Luke, offering him his old lightsaber with an expression of stark desperation on her face. The moment echoes Luke’s first meeting with Yoda, but here, they both know all too well the depths of the mistakes they might make. This moment of the film also seems well aware of the weight of history it bears, and manages to incorporate that weight into something new.

The real question is: What’s next? The film used so many pieces/parts from the original trilogy, but it ended up in a different place, I think. So what now? I’m going to go with the camp that says this film was necessarily overly familiar—so it could lure us in and make us comfortable.

And, now, once again, we can trust in the Force.

My initial criteria for a good Star Wars movie have been met, but the ultimate test is going to be the test of time. What will I think of this movie in five years? In ten? Will I be vowing to never speak of it again? Or will I still be crying when I watch it, the way I still cry at the original Episode IV?

I’m anxious to find out. For now, the film did exactly what it needed to do: remind us why we fell in love with this world in the first place, and—like Han Solo says in all those previews—make us feel like we’re home.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.