Title stolen shamelessly from Jon Morris, of course. Spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens below. You have been warned! With a spoiler warning!
Firstly, whatever criticisms of the film can be made (and there are substantive ones), it is important to first note that the film is enormously enjoyable. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac all instantly have terrific chemistry together; you can believe that Rey and Finn can instantly connect or that Finn and Poe can have a “did we just become best friends” moment. They’re all also excellent on their own merits acting in their own roles. BB-8 is adorable and hilarious. Harrison Ford is the most alive and engaged on-screen that I have seen him since probably What Lies Beneath and that was fifteen years ago, and he has just as much chemistry with the new cast as they have with each other. And Adam Driver is a head above all of them; his performance of Kylo Ren has emotional layers beyond what the script implies, and every line is heavy with multiple thoughts and intentions as per the character’s inner conflict.
The action sequences are mostly good to great and never drop below serviceable. (Some of JJ Abrams’ choices – the occasional shaky-cam or snap-zoom – feel slightly out of place, but they are relatively brief.) The lightsaber battles in particular are excellent, not ridiculously ornate and complex as some of the prequel lightsaber battles were, but serve well as expressions of each character’s emotional state, which is what a lightsaber battle should be. The dialogue is largely well-written and feels naturalistic in the “Harrison Ford re-writing Lucas’ terrible dialogue” way.
The plot… okay, here’s where we start to find issues.
Firstly, it is not the most original thing in the world to say that the plot feels very much like a remix of A New Hope. “A lonely person on a desert planet discovers that they are Something More as a result of an external crisis involving an evil empire intruding into their personal lives, goes on an adventure, finds an elderly mentor, then the elderly mentor dies and the person has to save the day” is more or less a description of every first movie in every Star Wars trilogy, but Awakens is even more blatant than that in many ways: the Starkiller is basically a supersized Death Star (it blows up FIVE planets instead of one! It’s planet-sized rather than moon-sized!), BB-8 takes the Artoo role, Maz Kanata’s bar is the new cantina scene, et cetera. Where the plot isn’t a direct New Hope lift is generally where it sags (the Rathtar sequence is a good example of this; it’s fun but it doesn’t feel like it’s really part of the movie so much as the filmmakers shrugging and saying “well we need some action here, what can we do, okay let’s throw in some giant tongue monsters”).
Where the plot is not a lift it often feels unfocused. The relationship between the First Order, the Republic and the Resistance is not entirely clear in the movie, for example, and although you can sort of guess (the Resistance is an armed group operating within First Order territory, or something, and they’re sort of funded by the Republic but not directly, and the First Order and the Republic aren’t at war, until maybe they are) it’s not really explained well at all; the momentum of the story won’t pause for digressions like that, or how Maz Kanata found the lightsaber Luke lost on Bespin, or what the fuck Snoke is exactly. (I mean, even in Star Wars it’s pretty clear that the Emperor, whom we never see, is an evil dictator who’s taken over a legitimate government. I’m not sure how Snoke is in charge of the First Order, and that sort of matters.)
But for everything that can be said about the plot, almost nothing can be, because the story is not finished. That wasn’t true of New Hope (that was a film made with no expectation of a sequel) or even Phantom Menace (George Lucas had a strong belief in the idea that each film was an individual chapter and needed to be a complete story in and of itself). Awakens, in comparison, ends with questions that are asked and specifically left unanswered – most notably, who the hell Rey is. Is she Luke’s daughter? Is she Han and Leia’s daughter and Luke mindwiped everybody to forget about her for her own protection? Is she Just Some Rando Who Is Strong With The Force? (That last one would be my preference, incidentally, just because all the significant Force people being from one family is an idea that can now go away.) Awakens ends with Rey begging Luke for training and, presumably, answers. It’s the first part of a larger story and not a story complete of itself, which means that any evaluation of its plot is an evaluation that will be, by definition, incomplete. That doesn’t mean I can’t complain about the plot; I just have to be aware I’m complaining about something that is, by design, not yet complete. But complaining about its incompleteness is something I can do.
Anyway. I had fun and enjoyed the movie very much; it is a good movie. But on any ranking of Star Warses it has to come fourth after the original trilogy; if one were to hypothetically divide Rise of the Sith into two movies, I might even rank the excellent second half of Sith over Force Awakens (because the first half of Sith is bad bad bad and drags the film down significantly). That’s my take on it.