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Star Wars: The Force Awakens review: This film feels committee-approved to delight fans

This review contains no spoilers.

Kylo Ren is the intimidating new villain in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Kylo Ren is the intimidating new villain in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens is much, much better than the Star Wars prequels.



For many fans, that sentence is all they'll need to hear to walk into the movie theater with confidence. (I was going to say "to buy tickets," but let's be real — half of America has had tickets for this movie for months.) Just knowing that The Force Awakens has been seemingly engineered to appeal to everyone who grew up with and loved the original Star Wars trilogy — and to woo the children of those original fans — will be enough to put a spring in the step.

And yet that feeling of being precisely calibrated to appeal exactly to Star Wars fans is The Force Awakens' greatest weakness.

For better or (mostly) worse, the prequels actually tried new things. They attempted to reveal new sides of the Star Wars universe, and their tragic story was utterly unlike the original trilogy's build toward triumph. Yes, the prequels had problems — a whole host of them — but at least they cut their own path.

In contrast, The Force Awakens feels a little bit like the TV show Fargo back in its first season. The story is compelling. The acting is great. The technical aspects are solid. But it's hard to escape the idea that the film is a remix of something else, an attempt to rework story elements that felt more original elsewhere.

Thankfully, Fargo was still a really good TV show in its first season (and became a great one in its second). Likewise, there's plenty to appreciate about The Force Awakens, too. Here are the good, bad, and weird elements of the film.

Note: What follows is as spoiler-free as possible, but if you're truly freaked out about knowing even the most basic details, everything above this paragraph stands in as a brief review of the film itself.

Good: The cast, both old and new

The Force Awakens
Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are among the film's new characters.

Yes, the actors from the original Star Wars trilogy are in The Force Awakens. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill are all in fine form, and there's something oddly lovely about seeing them, nearly 40 years removed from the movies that made them famous, older and perhaps wiser. Star Wars has always been a series about intergenerational torch passing, about the complicated relationships between parents and children, and about how the Force flows strongly in certain family trees. Just seeing the lines on Ford's face expresses this idea better than any dialogue ever could.

But if Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams has perfected one particular skill above all others, it's his ability to assemble ensemble casts. His work on TV shows like Alias and Lost, to say nothing of the cast he put together for the latest incarnation of the big-screen Star Trek franchise, proves how effective he is at seeking out fresh faces who seem like they've always been major stars.

His best find in The Force Awakens is Daisy Ridley, who plays the lonely, isolated Rey, a young woman from the desert planet Jakku. Her path intersects with that of a young man named Finn (John Boyega, who's similarly new to most moviegoers, though hardcore film fans may know him for the excellent British monster movie Attack the Block), sending the both of them on a grand adventure.

Some of the film's other roles are filled by actors who may be slightly more familiar to viewers — like up-and-coming star Oscar Isaac, who's best known for his work in smaller films like Inside Llewyn Davis, but who will soon be everywhere thanks to this film and the next X-Men movie. There's also Adam Driver, of Girls fame.

All of these actors have very different energies (Ridley is all wide eyes and expressive physicality; Driver is a much more naturalistic presence), but somehow they all work together. And the new characters they play are instantly engaging, all with readily identifiable goals that the audience can invest in quickly. Abrams's greatest gift remains very much intact.

Bad: The film sometimes lacks an identity of its own

Should the villains use Stormtroopers again? Eh, sure, why not?

The prequels often struggled to establish any sort of clear storytelling conceit, beyond the idea that Anakin Skywalker would eventually turn to the Dark Side. But they also tried to move beyond the simplistic "good versus evil" conflicts of the original trilogy. They didn't succeed at this, but their ambition to tell more subtle, political stories about how easy it is to be corrupted by power offered more nuance than they get credit for.

The Force Awakens takes the opposite approach, sometimes offering up far too slavish devotion to the original trilogy.

There's a new, poorly developed conflict between good and evil. There are new characters who must be trained in the ways of the Force. And there are plot points and character beats that are lifted wholesale, or occasionally disguised with a gender flip or something. And while it can be fun to play "spot the reference," that devotion occasionally causes the film to feel trapped by its forebears.

As critic Mike Klimo has argued, the Star Wars films have always had a circularity to them, so it makes a certain amount of sense that The Force Awakens sometimes plays like a cover version of the original 1977 film. But my primary feeling after watching it was that I was ready for something new, for the story to set off in the directions it was begging to head in, instead of hewing too closely to the old movies.

Good: The film's look is peerless

Lightsabers in the snow.
A lightsaber battle in the snow makes for gorgeously evocative images.

The toughest challenge The Force Awakens faced was always going to be finding a visual palette that would contrast with the original trilogy's broken-down universe as much as the shiny newness of the prequels did. The new film doesn't quite manage that feat, but it comes surprisingly close.

This new Star Wars takes place even more in a world of haves and have-nots. Rey lives in a world where her meals are provided solely through scavenging, a world that feels like it might be wiped away by the sands at any moment, and every glimpse into the new power structure of this universe is filled with a kind of gleaming austerity that would make Fritz Lang, director of the silent classic Metropolis, proud.

Abrams and his cinematographer Dan Mindel are still a little too fond of lens flares (a hallmark of Abrams's filmography), but they've otherwise used traditional 35mm film (as opposed to digital) to give the world a feeling of warmth and hospitality. The original trilogy felt lived in, while the prequels felt like a series of particularly intricate dioramas. This film skews far closer to the former, and it's better for it.

Bad: It's also a touch long and doesn't stand on its own

BB-8 in Force Awakens
But there's an incredibly lovable droid named BB8!

I'm not normally someone to complain about the length of a film. All stories need the time they need. But Force Awakens is just a touch over two hours and actually feels a bit longer. And it takes until the third act for the story to really ignite. (I should say here the final sequence is tremendous stuff.) Abrams and his collaborators have paid attention to the way the first three films took their time in setting up their worlds, then exploded with action.

This is at least somewhat welcome in our modern, spectacle-driven era, but Force Awakens falls prey to another problem constantly present in a world driven by mega-franchises: Lots of plot points in this film feel like setup for films to come, and as such, they don't really have a reason to exist within this one.

Abrams's massive success as a franchise caretaker stems, I think, from his success in television, where he's always been one of the best at crafting pilots, designed to invite an audience into the show's world, week after week. That can work in films, but think of how, for instance, the first Star Wars worked perfectly as a standalone adventure. There are elements of that here, but for the most part, this definitely feels like part one of a three-part story. And that leaves lots of scenes feeling cast adrift from the main story.

Good: It's thematically rich for a movie obviously made solely so that the world might have another Star Wars movie

Han Solo in The Force Awakens
Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is back! Yay!

There's a certain wistful sadness to many franchise movies nowadays, their directors and writers seeming a little frustrated that this is the best way to make a movie with the sort of budget that might support their grandest visions.

There's no real good reason for another Star Wars movie. The first six form a sort of closed loop, which could make this one feel like an empty cash grab. And while the merchandising for it has, at times, seemed to exist purely to wring more money out of Star Wars fans, the movie itself was obviously made by people who feel slightly terrified and reverential about making another Star Wars movie.

And, appropriately, the film is about wrestling with the weight of history and legacy. Its first half-hour is almost entirely about having to live in a universe that saw such giants as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at one time but now seems to have settled into a kind of humdrum normality. How would you exist at the margins of such a society? How would you try to make good and moral choices when your ethics would seem to be prescribed by which "side" of the Force you adhered to?

The Force Awakens, like the Rocky spinoff Creed, is a fan film, but it's made by people who desperately love the world they're inhabiting and are asking the most pertinent question any fan would have when dropped into it: How do you exist within this world? How do you keep from losing yourself?

It's a question George Lucas lost sight of long ago. If the makers of the new trilogy can stick to it, they just might have a shot at making something special. The Force Awakens is a good start.

Weird: The way Han Solo and Chewbacca enter this story

I have some theories about this, which I'll share once the film is in general release, but as it stands, they sort of just ... show up. There's an explanation, but not a very convincing one.

It's worth pondering, at the least.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is playing throughout the country. Good luck getting a ticket.

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