So where do I start ...?
... With the Mary Sue protagonist?
... Or the McGuffin plot device?
... Or the uncomfortably rushed pacing?
... Or that the uncomfortably-rushed plot was a complete rehash of the first movie's plot, starting with hiding a secret document inside a droid and culminating in a trench run to blow up yet another Death Star?
... Or how about the other fan-service?
... Or the shallow character arcs?
... Or the completely throw-away characters like Phasma?
... How about the weak, forgettable original score?
... Or even how the lack of the 20th Century Fox fanfare made the title crawl feel weird?
Yeah, I came out of the movie with a very sunken, disappointed feeling. Heck, at first, I wasn't even sure if what I had just seen was even better than the prequels. But I'll give The Force Awakens some credit and say that it is better than the prequels. Despite Rey coming off as a Mary Sue, and despite that all the other characters have arcs that are completed within the first ten minutes of the movie (if an arc exists at all), the characters and performances are much better than what we got in the prequels. I thought that the friendliness and camaraderie between the heroes felt a bit forced, but that was partly the result of the rapid pacing of the movie. The Millenium Falcon seems to warp back and forth across the galaxy three times over the course of the movie, and hyperspace seems to allow virtually instantaneous transit now (another problem that Abrams carried over from Star Trek). Is travel instantaneous, or did these characters spend days or weeks bunking on the Falcon?
Rey feels like a Mary Sue character who fulfills a multi-film development arc in the span of a few minutes.
Rey is a Mary Sue character whose entire development occurs in the couple minutes that she's strapped into an interrogation chair; although I loved the witty subversion of the "damsel in distress" trope in the beginning of the film: "Stop holding my hand, I know how to run!". LoL. Fin's arc is basically complete within the first ten minutes of the movie. Kylo Ren has a shallow arc that is left unresolved so that it can be further explored in the subsequent films (I'm assuming he's probably going to have a redemption arc similar to Vader's in Return of the Jedi). Han and Leia don't have arcs, as they just have backstory. All their character development happened off-screen in the thirty intervening years. And I'm OK with that. I didn't expect Han and Leia's relationship to work out anyway. They had nothing in common except the fight against the empire. Once that was over, Leia was likely to go back to being a diplomat or politician, and Han would have to turn his back on the life of crime and mercenary work that he's good at in order to find a respectable job and avoid being a source of scandal and controversy. That wasn't going to happen!
So all the backstory made sense to me, and was all pretty much what I expected. That is, until the political situation came up... So there's another republic now (makes sense), and that republic is the dominant governing power in the galaxy, right? And then there's this small, Cult of Darth Vader that calls itself the First Order. The First Order isn't the empire (or even the remnants of the empire), but they use the empire's stormtrooper armor, TIE Fighters, and Star Destroyers out of reverence for Vader. And they hold no actual power or influence, right? They don't even recruit soldiers from the general galactic population. They either kidnap children, or grow them in test tubes to be raised to fight as stormtroopers (and maybe even as officers, as suggested by the youthful General Hux). The only sympathy or cooperation that they receive is from fear and intimidation, which for some reason, the republic is either unwilling or incapable of doing anything about?
And then there's this resistance that Leia is supposedly in charge of, and that everyone in the galaxy seems to know about. What are they resisting? They're not resisting the republic. They seem to be resisting the First Order, and that they are sanctioned by the republic but not an official part of the republic. Well why not? Why are they still a small, ragtag group of former rebels that are apparently hiding away in secret bases? Why isn't the "resistance" just the republic's army or some sort of special operations unit? I'm sure that this sort of stuff will be explained (and hopefully make more sense) in the follow-up movies (or maybe it's already been explained in official books or whatever), but that doesn't change the fact that it made no sense in this movie. It's just another example of J.J. Abrams seeming to have no comprehension of the size and scale of the universes that he's working in.
The political situation is very poorly explained. Who are the "Resistance",
what are they resisting, and why aren't they part of the new republic's official military?
The overall plot works well enough for the first two-thirds of the movie. It's a bit excessive with the coincidences, and the pacing is way too fast. The third act is where everything kind of nose-dived for me. I kind of feel like this film tried to cram the basic emotional arc and character development of both A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back into one film, and that it probably should have been separated into two movies. I think it would have worked better without the Starkiller subplot.
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I really feel like the Starkiller should have survived through this first movie. After the assault on the resistance base, Ren should have captured Rey and the end of the movie should have been the attempt to rescue her. The rescue could have happened on the Starkiller as it was initially being activated, and the movie could have ended with the destruction of Coruscant. I think this would have freed up a little bit more time to slow down other parts of the movie, and revealing the power of the Starkiller would have upped the stakes going into the next movie. Of course, this would assume that the Starkiller hadn't been plastered on the friggin poster! But I don't know what (if anything) Disney has planned for the sequel...
The Starkiller weapon felt like a silly, unnecessary plot device designed solely to mirror the original movie.
That's assuming that the Starkiller would be necessary at all. The doomsday weapon thing has already been played out in the original trilogy, and this movie (and this trilogy) didn't have to repeat it. It honestly feels like something that was thrown in simply for the purpose of mirroring the first movie.
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But similarities to the original Star Wars movie are not, by themselves, a deal-breaker. After all, the Back to the Future movies were all basically the same movie, with the same plot structure and even the same jokes. And I like all three of those movies. No, I could have lived with the copy-pasted plot if all the supporting details had just been better. The thing that really killed it for me was the Mary Sue and deus ex machina.
The lightsaber duel was the highlight of the movie,
and is much better than the prequel duels.
At least the lightsaber fights showed some proper restraint. The duel at the end actually looked like two people having a sword fight, instead of precisely-choreographed break-dancing with glow sticks. And I rather liked the lack of confidence displayed by Kylo Ren. There was a great deal of characterization going on during this scene (for Kylo, at least). In general, he pulled off the "angsty teenager" role much better than Hayden Christiansen in the prequels, and his temper tantrums were great. So this is an area in which the new movie far surpasses the prequels.
I also really liked how Snoke was presented. I don't mind that his character kind of comes out of nowhere, as it provides a bit of mystery that doesn't in any way hurt the movie. After all, the emperor was similarly mysterious in Empire Strikes Back after not having been present in Star Wars at all. I'm really curious and excited to see how Snoke develops in the next couple movies.
Snoke is interesting and mysterious, and I look forward to seeing how he develops in the future movies.
There's also complaints that the map acts as a "McGuffin". This is mostly true. In the sense that it is a plot-driver, then yes, the map is a McGuffin. Compare this to the Death Star plans in the original Star Wars, which was a meaningful plot device because it allows the heroes to resolve the movie's central conflict (e.g. it allows them to blow up the Death Star). In The Force Awakens, Luke serves no role in the movie, and so the map has no meaning in this movie's plot; hence, it is a McGuffin.
But it's not completely without context like the McGuffins of some of the Marvel movies. While the function of the Infinity Stones in Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are completely ambiguous, this map has actual meaning to the characters. It has a reason for existing, it has a purpose that is obvious, and it is reasonable why people want it. It's not a "map to Luke" as the movie keeps saying; rather, it is a "map to the first Jedi temple" that Luke probably found in some old Imperial database, and then hid it inside R2-D2. Since the main players all know that Luke banished himself to the first Jedi temple, then recreating the map to that temple is effectively a "map to Luke". It's just another element of the movie's plot and backstory that is poorly explained in the film.
And now it's time for the real spoilers. But honestly, if you didn't see this one coming by halfway through the second Force Awakens trailer, then I wonder if you were really paying attention.
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I'm sorry Han, but by the time your son has become the head of a murderous, child-brainwashing cult of evil that has secretly built a doomsday weapon capable of blowing up entire star systems, and who has ambitions for galactic domination, then I think he's a lost cause. The movie tried to go out of its way to make Kylo torn between the light and dark side, but I never really bought into it. So Han's death seemed incredibly contrived and meaningless to me. I'm not even sure if Kylo was intended to be uncertain at that point, or if he was just telling Han what Han wanted to hear in order to stall them from blowing up the Starkiller long enough for the sun to be fully absorbed.
Han, it was clearly too late to save Kylo from his choices. You walked right into this one.
And this was a death that I saw coming from a couple miles away. I've been telling people for about a year that I think that Han Solo was going to die. And if you want to be mad at me for "spoiling it for you", then I have two things to say: first, it's not a "spoiler" if it's just speculation based on the trailers and casting; second, I can't be held responsible for J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan writing a predictable movie, nor can I be held responsible for Disney putting spoilers in the trailers and poster! When the second trailer hit, and it was all about the Millenium Falcon and Han Solo, I suspected that Abrams was trying to get everyone exciting about seeing Han and the Falcon in action again, so that he could force them to shed nostalgic tears of giddiness and then get sucker punched in the gut when he dies. And as I realized the similarities to the first movie that were present in the trailer (yes, I noticed the trench in the trailers), the framing of Han as the "wise old sage" who teaches the kids about the force and the dark side created a parallel to Obi Wan and further cemented the idea that he would sacrifice himself by the end of the movie. It seemed pretty transparently obvious to me.
It was clear that Kylo Ren would be either Leia's child or Luke's child, but given that Han was more prominent in the trailers, I leaned towards Kylo being the son of Han and Leia. So that was no surprise, and I'm grateful that the movie didn't try to make Kylo's identity some kind of big, dramatic plot twist reveal, because that would have just been stupid. Unfortunatley, it looks like they are building up to a dramatic reveal that Rey is Luke's child (or maybe Obi Wan's?), but that's a different story...
In any case, I felt that Han's death should have been a sacrifice to save the others. If his approach of Kylo had been framed as him trying to stall Kylo while the others escaped, or if he died while trying to save Chewbacca, Leia, or even Rey or Finn, then I'd have been much happier.
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The bottom line is that this movie disappointed me because I don't feel like it was the passion-project that it was hyped up to be. It feels like a very corporate-feeling, "soft reboot" of the series, akin to what Universal did with Jurassic World (minus the clever meta-commentary on Hollywood and consumer culture). It was a remake of the first movie intended to introduce "Star Wars" to a new generation. But Disney didn't have the balls to just make a pure reboot or remake for the same reason that Paramount didn't allow a complete reboot of "Star Trek": it would have put the fanbase in an uproar. So instead, we get this half-baked "baton-passing" from the old characters to the new in an attempt to tie the new movie into the old.
The action scenes looked very nice, even if they felt very derivative.
But the movie is far from terrible. On it's own, it's a fun (albeight predictable and rushed) space adventure with exciting action, working humor, and some decent characters and drama. It's a definite improvement over the garbage that was offered in the prequels, but it's far from restoring the Star Wars name in my eyes. In all the ways that The Force Awakens is comparable to the prequels, it seems to be far superior; but in all the ways that it deliberately invites comparison to the original Star Wars movies, it fails to live up to the standard.