There has been an awakening. With a $238 million opening weekend, the box office roared to live, stoked by the Mustafar-sized conflagration of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, quickly making this seventh Star Wars film the biggest opening of all time and putting it on track to dethrone the highest grossing films ever. But all money aside, the real question on everyone’s lips were, is it good? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding yes. With a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, critics and fans alike have rallied around the J.J. Abrams product like Ewoks on a post-Empire Endor. But that doesn’t mean that the film didn’t have its share of lows amongst the highs.
Upon initially seeing (and reviewing) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (full review here), I had a few serious qualms with the derivative nature of the film but some of those issues have already faded with a little perspective and a second viewing. Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to love much of what J.J. Abrams did. Like a tiptoeing Jedi, it’s sneaking higher up my rankings by the day. Still I can’t discount my initial reservations and thought that in order to best process why the trepidation towards declaring my undying love, I’d work through its collective strengths and weaknesses. So in order to get a handle on what does and doesn’t work in this far, far away space opera, I’ve broken down the best and worst aspects of the film. So make like Salacious Crumb and dig in.
BEST – Stormtroopers Are…Dangerous???
Ineptitude has long plagued the Stormtroopers, the soldiers of the dark side with aim as infamously bad as they come. In the past, Stormtroopers have never presented much danger but in The Force Awakens, they suddenly pose a very real, very barbarous threat. From the opening scene that sees them slaughter a Jakkuvian village under Kylo Ren’s command to the assault on Takodana where Finn faces down a Stormtrooper in melee combat who is not only capable of parrying Finn’s lightsaber attacks but actually gets the upper hand on him before he’s saved by Han and Chewie, for the first time in Star Wars history, the Stormtrooper actually seemed intimidating.
WORST – The Rathtars
J.J. Abrams did a great job of divorcing himself from the clunky CGI that dominated George Lucas’ derided prequels, presenting a bulk of new characters realized with engaging practical effects rather than in-post work. And then there’s the Rathtars, space monsters who Finn talks up as if they are some terrifying entity the likes of a Rancor or Wampas. Rather, the Rathtars look like the flying spaghetti monster with teeth. If we’re thinking of The Force Awakens as an echo of A New Hope, The Rathtar sequence is loosely analogous to the trash compactor scene of 1977 but doesn’t near live up to that earlier genius scene. With the lamest CG effects of the entire movie, these feared entities just didn’t work, nor did the scene that they found themselves in. While it properly establishes Han’s re-entrance into the smuggling game, there could have been plenty of other creatures that would have actually brought the peril (and ensuing bonding) more front and center.
BEST – Han/Chewie Bowcaster Banter
A subtler joke seeded through The Force Awakens comes in Han’s serendipitous acquisition of Chewbacca’s bowcaster once the Wookie is wounded, a weapon he seemingly hasn’t fire in the 40+ years the smugglers have been working together. The palpable delight on Han’s face the first time he borrows Chewie’s signature weapon blooms into a series of fine moments between the two estate characters that touches on a different aspect of their relationship than we’ve seen before. Also, the Bowcaster seems more beefed up than before as its shots manage to inflict serious blast points wherever fired. Chalk us down for wanting one.
WORST – The Hazy Politics
Credit is due to Abrams for bucking off the overly politicized nature of Lucas’ prequels (the man defends the trilogy by saying they’re intended for kids but still found it sage to insert a least a dozen tedious Senate meetings into the affair) but doesn’t quite give us enough to go on in terms of the political structures that exist as of now. We know of three factions – the Republic, the First Order and the Resistance – but we’re given little detail as to how they operate and fit together in the governing of the galaxy. We’re not asking for a detailed analysis of the transition from Empire to First Order or to sit down on a backroom meeting between the Republic and the Resistance, but the lines are curiously thin between the three factions. If the Republic is back in action, why is there still a Resistance at all? They’re clearly aligned with the Republic against the First Order but why then are they two entities? Further, is the universe divided territoriality so that The First Order rules one part of the galaxy with an iron fist while the Republic governs another? At this point, we just don’t know.
BEST – BB-8
The little BB-unit who could isn’t a far cry from R2D2 (although he seems to have better manners) and yet the newest droid addition is one of the most winning aspects of The Force Awakens. His conflicted decision to give up the Resistance location when probed by a desperate Finn makes way for one of the funniest exchanges of the film (the “thumbs” up traded between the two). But BB-8 isn’t just a point of comic relief, he’s a true blue character who beeps and boops his way into our hearts. Fiercely loyal and clearly emotionally connected to the characters who surround him, BB-8 goes a long way in proving, in the Star Wars universe, robots have feelings too. Those digging a little deeper into the behind-the-scenes work will find that BB-8 was “voiced” by a slew of comedy actors, including Bill Hader with a talk box and the Parks & Recs alum Ben Schwartz, which just goes to affirm our affection for the lil wheelie guy.
WORST – Starkiller Base (A.K.A. Death-ier Star)
One of the biggest universal grievances about The Force Awakens is Starkiller Base, a planet that the First Order has converted into a super-weapon capable of harnessing the power of the sun to destroy entire star systems. It doesn’t take Admiral Akbar giving a hologram powerpoint to realize that Starkiller Base is just a bigger, death-ier Death Star and in using this trope of harbinger of doom as the principal MacGuffin, J.J. and company missed out on a chance to do something unique. What that might have been, I can’t say but bigger is not always better. As Starkiller Base very much proves.
BEST – Han’s Fate
That Han follows in the footsteps of Darth Maul, Boba Fett and the Emperor before him (all of whom met their end by falling into a pit) is a great tip to his moral gray scale and his smuggler’s past (and present). But Han will always be a hero in our books and his exit from the franchise coming at the hands of a last-ditch effort to save his son from himself proves that fact immeasurably. The Vegas odds on Han making it out of The Force Awakens weren’t great to begin with, especially considering that Harrison Ford famously wanted his character killed off in Return of the Jedi (Lucas wouldn’t hear of it), but it isn’t until the moment that Han steps out and calls out “Ben” that his fate is (pretty much) sealed. What plays out is a tender moment, filled with complexity (Adam Driver’s conflicted portrait of the converted Kylo Ren here is truly great) and tragedy. Chills followed in waves, one right after the other, and even though we mostly saw this coming, it doesn’t take away the fact that Han’s fate gutted both me and audiences across the galaxy.
BEST – Daniel Craig Cameo
The cameo of the year award goes to Daniel Craig. Playing *that* stormtropper – you know the one – Craig disappeared beneath the customary snow-white armor on a Spectre off-day. It took some probing but the actor recently admitted to donning the costume to partake in what is definitely one of the the funniest moment of the film. Rey, locked up in a First Order interrogation room, tries to force persuade the solitary trooper, “You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.” It takes a few goes but eventually the double-oh trooper straightens up and lists back Rey’s commands in a beautiful tip of the hat to the infamous “These are not the droids you’re looking for” moment. Not only is Craig’s stormtrooper moment a gas, it also establishes Rey as a potent Force user quickly taking control of her powers. The fleeting, “And you will drop you weapon too!” is just icing on the force-lacquered cake.
WORST – Lack of Poe
For all intents and purposes, there are four major new characters in The Force Awakens but one of them kind of gets the shaft. I’m talking about Poe Dameron, a Resistance pilot played with devilish charm by Oscar Isaac. Poe opens the film on Jakku when he’s tasked by Leia herself to retrieve a map to Luke Skywalker but after being captured by Kylo Ren and rescued by Finn (John Boyega), Poe fades to obscurity. At first glance, Poe seems very much in the same vein as Han Solo and seeing that Han (a.k.a. Mr. Solo) has a substantial role in the film, it seems that J.J. and his writers decided it best to sideline Poe and his character development until future installments. Consider that by the end of A New Hope, Leia, Han and Luke were all very defined characters, having completed personal arcs of their own while in The Force Awakens, Finn, Rey and Kylo Ren have their journey – and let us just reiterate how much we love the new characters – while Poe is kind of forgotten about. Hopefully he’s given more to do in future installments.
BEST – Rey and Luke’s Lightsaber
If Han’s death gave us chills of sadness, Rey force grabbing Luke’s lightsaber, right over the head of the traitorous Kylo Ren, gave us chills of hope. Throughout the film, there was evidence that Rey had a surprisingly fierce connection to the Force (see “Daniel Craig cameo”) but it wasn’t until her (totally untrained) powers beat out Kylo Ren’s that her inherent ability crystallized. The moment made for a spark of grandeur sure to live on in the Star Wars canon of greats. Also, the whole galaxy now has a crush on Daisy Ridley.
BEST – “The garbage will do”
At this point, we’ve established that The Force Awakens is brimming with comic highs but perhaps none bested Rey’s seemingly throwaway line about what ship to take off-planet. As Rey, BB-8 and Finn dash from TIE Fighter fire, they rush towards a far-off quad jumper and Finn suggests they take an adjacent ship that Rey quickly dismisses as “garbage”. When the quad jumper is blown to bits, she utters the soon-to-be-renowned phrase, “The garbage will do.” She’s talking of course of the Millennium Falcon, Han’s ship from the original trilogy known for doing the kessel run in 14 (no, 12) parsecs before breaking down whenever it was needed most. The line is probably J.J.’s very best tip of the hat to fans that also serves up a welcome lineage mystery to the ongoing legacy of the Falcon’s storied history.