After all the Hype, Does ‘The Force Awakens’ Hold Up?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes to home video this week. In business terms, this means that Disney can continue making all the money: In total dollars, The Force Awakens grossed more at American box offices than any movie ever. Even if you adjust for inflation, it’s the third highest grossing movie of the last 40 years.

But lots of movies do well that people eventually come to revile. Shrek 2, holds the #11 slot on the all-time domestic list, for instance; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is #21. (I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t sit through either of them again unless you paid me.) The ultimate judgment of a movie’s quality, then, isn’t the reviews or the box office receipts. It’s how audiences come to regard the movie after they’ve watched it at home. In other words, history will start judging The Force Awakens this week.

The verdict is likely to be mixed. Four months after the movie’s initial release, The Force Awakens holds up reasonably well. Kylo Ren is still the most interesting character in the series since Darth Vader. Harrison Ford’s amazing charisma still carries the film for long stretches.

And there are aspects of the production that make a bigger impression now that the hype has been worn away. For instance, there’s Max Von Sydow’s character on Jakku, who hints at Kylo Ren’s past so subtly that you don’t even notice it. Not since Alec Guinness off-handedly referenced the clone wars has world building been done so organically in Star Wars.

Then there’s director J. J. Abrams’ decision to stage all of his aerial battles not in space, as was the case in every previous Star Wars movie, but in low-level planetary atmosphere. It gives the sequences a visceral immediacy that had been lacking in pretty much every Star Wars dogfight since the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back.

Also, you’ll notice now that Abrams cared enough to make the movie beautiful in ways no Star Wars movie ever was: There is a shot of Rey sledding down a giant sand dune that has the quiet, unadorned serenity of a John Ford composition. There’s an establishing shot where Abrams shows a trio of TIE fighters backed against a shimmering, setting sun that actually kind of takes your breath away.

As much as anything, these little grace notes remind viewers of how artistically limited George Lucas was as a director. It’s not that he couldn’t make a movie beautiful. It’s that it never occurred to him to even try.

But while you’ll likely to appreciate these aspects of The Force Awakens more as time goes by, none of them mitigate the movie’s two biggest problems.

The biggest complaint about The Force Awakens was that it wasn’t so much a sequel to Star Wars as a retelling of the original. Consider the basic plot: An agent with secret information is pursued by storm troopers and a powerful bad guy dressed all in black. The agent hides the information in a droid before being captured and taken back to the bad-guy base. Meanwhile, on a desert planet, a lonely nomadic teenager winds up on the Millennium Falcon to make passage across the galaxy with a rogue pilot named Han Solo and his first-mate Chewbacca. In the finale, a group of rebels destroys a giant bad-buy base that has the power to destroy an entire planet.

So which movie are we talking about? And it’s not just the plot. Have a look at some of the shot-for-shot homages.

The second big problem with the movie is Rey. When The Force Awakens first came out, some wags were quick to point out that Rey is the sci-fi equivalent of John Cena: A character so omnipotent that she drains everything she touches of dramatic tension. To recap: Rey is an expert at hand-to-hand combat. She is an accomplished pilot not just capable of operating a ship she’s never flown, but of masterfully flying it in combat. She is also an amazing engineer—she knows the inner workings of this ship better than the guy who owned it for several decades and modified it himself. She is so strong with the Force that she discovers both the Jedi mind trick and the Force grab on her own, after a few seconds of effort. She is such an accomplished fighter that she decisively defeats a trained Sith lord (or whatever Kylo Ren is) in a light saber duel, again, mere seconds after picking up a light saber for the first time. As the old John Cena joke goes, Spoiler: I win.

These problems aren’t nipples-on-the-Batsuit. They’re not deal breakers. But I suspect that they’re significant enough that The Force Awakens will not ascend to the pantheon of cultural touchstones. The character of Kylo Ren probably will. But the movie as a whole hasn’t improved much with age.

It’s good enough, certainly. But a classic? Ten years from now when you want a dose of Star Wars, is this the movie you’ll instinctively reach for? Probably not.

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2 responses to “After all the Hype, Does ‘The Force Awakens’ Hold Up?

  1. The biggest complaint about The Force Awakens was that it wasn’t so much a sequel to Star Wars as a retelling of the original.

    Sure it stole many of the same story beats. But it also turned them inside out. Instead of the son refusing to kill the evil father, this time the evil son kills his dad. Rather than the little tailor saving the princess with the help of the super-competent rogue, the princess saves herself, and the rogue is deeply afraid and only just competent.

    And I think we’ll see more of the same. Rey’s character resembles young Luke’s, but as you point out Rey has already blown out of that character arc. Solo is dead, we know Leia is going to lose, etc. etc.

    So I like the way Abrams subverted the original’s plot. But I don’t love the movie. The middle third is way too slow. To me the sequence from the Rathtars to Maz is all fluff. Abrams should have found a quicker way to show that Finn and Rey are afraid.

  2. Agreed that Rey is a big problem — and for another reason: she’s asexual. Not that I was rooting for it, but could she have shown an ounce of femininity? She might as well have been Ironman. My two daughters who saw the movie with me liked her anyway — but having seen the original trilogy they’re still totally gone on Leia. (A few moments of repartee with Han took care of that.) Heck, they even liked Padme better.

    I expect this edition will only improve with time if Disney has plans to expand the story rather than make all this a one-off. Otherwise it’ll be remembered as a pretty Battlestar Galactica.

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