And I guess my new name is “Mikey,” ‘cuz I liked it! I liked it!

Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS ahead, so consider yourself warned.

What really struck me about the movie is that it has a strong emotional core. I actually found myself tearing up a couple of times, which is something that I’ve never done while watching the original films. (And Maker help us, especially the prequels.) Abrams may have his limits as a storyteller, but coming from TV, he understands the deep emotional investment and personal attachment viewers — casual fans and hardcore enthusiasts — have from characters they’ve known for a long time. And how to introduce new characters into an established narrative in an organic, unforced way.

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For all that Lucas knew — and, it might be more accurate to say, inhabited — his universe, I don’t think he understood what it meant to people. The prequels are proof of that. There was nobody to identify with in them. Every central character was either a veteran politician, or an ascetic warrior monk. The one attempt at a Solo-ish “outsider” figure, Jar Jar, was also a dreadful comic relief figure whose universal derision even Lucas had to acknowledge by effectively writing him out of the saga after making him a quasi-villain by selling out the Republic to Palpatine. Anakin was a goody-two shoes moppet who grew up into a whiny, stalkerish teen and young adult. Obi-Wan seemed officious, uptight, and cold. Padme started out strong, but died of a “broken heart” (probably because Lucas figured that if Anakin fatally injured a pregnant woman nobody would ever buy into his redemption arc). The only really likable character in the entire trilogy was Qui-Gon, who really did seem like a wily, badass, take-charge venerable Jedi of old, but he died off early. On one level I appreciate the fact that Lucas was not trying to remake the group dynamics of the original films in the prequels, but it’s really hard to see anyone as the hero. (I’m not here to bury the prequels, though — there’s a lot about them that works pretty well, and there are some interesting story ideas. I just wish Lucas’d had someone else around to flesh them out.)

But Force Awakens is just overflowing with charisma. Poe, Finn, Rey — all sympathetic, engaging characters from the get-go. And the bad guys are fun, too, in the way that the Empire was fun in Empire Strikes Back. I really like the way Kylo’s mask is designed to hide the little-kid quiver in his voice — unlike Vader, who was a physical cripple, Kylo is emotionally shattered, and probably unlikely to get a redemption arc. (Slaying younglings is one thing; killing the most beloved character in the whole saga is another.) It’ll be interesting to see how the characters evolve over time, since the middle film is usually where the team gets split up and scattered across the galaxy.

Anyway, I never meant to write a review, so here’s a few random observations and asides:

  • There are a lot of complaints like Bricken’s that the new movies effectively undo the happy ending of Return of the Jedi, though in some ways all the tragedy and sorrow felt like Abrams’ and Kasdan’s tacit acknowledgement that Jedi was kinda lame, in an upbeat ‘80s movie way — Vader realizes, Bluth-like, that he’s made A Terrible Mistake, but there’s no real tragic weight to the story, no beloved characters die or become disillusioned, everything’s hunky dory in the galaxy despite decades of civil war and unrest. In some ways the scenario for Force Awakens reminds me of the Jedi treatment Lucas worked out while Gary Kurtz was still producing — Han dead, Luke in exile, Leia as a “people’s Queen” devoted entirely to running the new government, trying to prevent the Empire from rising again (the Emperor would not appear until the final episode). Emotionally, stylistically, and dramatically, TFA feels much closer to the first two Star Wars movies. And now Jedi feels more like an advance warning of the prequels’ excesses and kludgey storytelling.
  • Make no mistake, though, TFA is in constant dialogue with its predecessors. Rey and Finn often come off as a pair of devoted Star Wars fans arguing the specifics of their favorite universe. (The scene where “Snap” Wexley compares the Death Star to Starkiller Base is pure Wookieepedia.) And Rey is, while not a Mary Sue, certainly an amalgamation of familiar character traits — Han’s independence, Luke’s wanderlust, Leia’s gumption. It’s like the movie — or the Force — downloads the requisite skills to her, Matrix-style, whenever the situation demands it. Like a couple of generations of moviegoers, she’s grown up scouring and living in the remains of the OT (except literally).
  • The Hosnian System scene feels a lot like Abrams’ referendum on the prequels. We see (briefly) a dodgy-looking CGI city planet, pompous-looking Senators in foofy outfits, and then they’re all wiped out. As if Abrams were saying directly to the audience, Nuh-uh, none of that stuff in our movies.
  • That said, it was interesting to see some callbacks to the prequels. Clone troopers, the Sith, the Balance of the Force, even the Republic’s signature blue laserbolts.
  • And a bunch of stuff finally got canonized, after years of never being mentioned explicitly in movies: Leia’s last name, the Falcon’s make and model, Stormtroopers as regular humans rather than clones.
  • Speaking of Hosnian Prime, did anybody recognize what kinds of ships were in orbit around the planet? Were they Mon Cals or repurposed Star Destroyers? It all happened so quickly.
  • And while Abrams’ fetish for practical effects is all well and good, some of the creature props were sub-optimal, especially the aliens in Maz’s palace bar. The giant pig/warthog thing drinking from the well on Jakku looked like something from an old Terry Gilliam film. And what was the deal with the weird robot Jawa with the Pac-Man face? Maz turned out really well, though, as did Darth Smeagol Supreme Leader Snoke.
  • On a similar note, I did like the movie’s use of naturalistic environments and pre-existing structures, but the overall effect felt very austere. If you look at the art book, you’ll notice that a lot of the locations started out as much more lavish — Jakku was more bustling and populated, and Maz’s palace started out as a “crime” planet with saloons and casinos. I guess they were trying to get away from the “busy” look of the prequels, but it often felt like they could have put in a little more stuff.
  • Unkar Plutt, the Immortan Joe of Niima Outpost. (Apparently there was a whole subplot about him following the Falcon to Takodana to capture Rey. I’m really glad that got cut from the movie.)
  • I guess the fact that the Starkiller weapon uses hyperspace itself as a weapon explains why folks on Takodana can see the Hosnian system go kerblooey, even though presumably it would take hundreds or thousands of years for the light from the explosion to reach them. There, my one and only Star Wars science nitpick.
  • Okay, one more: Was SB able to draw upon the same star repeatedly, or just once before packing up and moving to another system? Presumably it was capable of traveling, since otherwise it’d become a frozen rock overnight.
  • I did get the feeling that a lot of stuff was cut from the film. There was probably a lot more backstory on the Resistance’s relationship to the Republic, as well as scenes with Finn and Phasma on the Imperial ship, Rey stuff on Jakku, Lor San Tekka, Poe’s escape to the Resistance, etc. A lot of these scenes are in the Alan Dean Foster novelization, which I read over the weekend. (Hey, I was sick and I’d already spoiled most of the plot for myself by piecing together various rumors. Anyway, it’s been a long-established tradition for me to read the ADF book in advance of the movie, going back to the ‘80s.)
  • Does anybody else expect Tekka or Maz (or Snoke) to show up in the “anthology” movies? I really did sense continuity feelers reaching out with those characters.
  • And whaddya wanna bet Maz and Snoke have a history?
  • Did Threepio look a lot more plasticky this time out? I heard that they used all-new materials for the suit this time, and it showed.
  • Was it just me, or did the sequence on Han’s new freighter with the Kanjiklub and Guavians have a weird TNG-meets-Alien vibe to it? That was a real Nostromo-y looking vessel (see also Han’s comment about once having a bigger crew). It’s even got a Giger-esque maw with “teeth”.
  • The callback to the Cloud City corridor in Rey’s vision was really cool, much subtler and more effective than a shot of Luke fighting Vader on the catwalk. You see that location and you know exactly where it is, even though it only appears briefly in Empire.
  • The First Order seemed a lot more openly Fascist than the Empire, and it’s interesting to notice how different they are, despite sharing a lot of aesthetic sensibilities. The Empire was run mostly by pencil-pushing technocrats who seemed pretty even-tempered for a bunch of space tyrants; the FO guys seems younger, angrier, and more diverse, with women and persons of color. You get the feeling that maybe the whole post-Jedi, New Republic era hasn’t worked out for a lot of people.
  • I kinda like the Falcon’s square antenna, even if it’s no longer military grade.
  • Goodbye Asty.
  • Was Leia wearing that ring before Han died? I assume it’s her wedding band; it has an Art Nouveau-look reminiscent of something from Naboo, or possibly Alderaan.
  • Was that a grave Luke was standing next to at the end of the movie, or a rocky outcropping? If it was a grave, whose was it? Mrs. Skywalker? Some apprentice we never met (maybe Unlucky Padawan No. 7 from Rey’s vision)?
  • On the whole, I had a great time and I’ll probably see it again, maybe in 3D. My only real reservation is that it wanted really badly to be old-school Star Wars, and didn’t try to come up with anything new or different. It felt a lot like some of the better EU books, minus the cheesy names. Same ships, same political structures, though the hero roles were scrambled up, which was nice. I was sad to see that Finn probably isn’t Jedi material, since Boyega looks pretty sharp with a light saber. But I suspect that Episode VIII will offer a departure from the formula, now that TFA has reestablished the classic Star Wars feel. If Abrams is a traditionalist, then Rian Johnson is a weirder, more idiosyncratic director, and I’d trust him to make something a little more boundary-pushing. Trevorrow, though, seems like a by-the-numbers franchise guy, much as I liked Safety Not Guaranteed.

That said, here are my predictions/questions for Episode VIII:

  • While Rey trains with Luke, Leia assumes the leadership of the Republic, striving to rebuild its military power with the help of her generals before the First Order strikes again. Essentially, she becomes the Churchill of the Star Wars universe, trying to decide how to make war on the enemy without compromising her principles.
  • Eventually, Rey and Luke go off on a quest to recruit more Jedi, maybe rejects or outcasts from the Academy, with Artoo and Chewbacca in tow. Maybe we can finally get a Seven Samurai-type storyline, after variations on Hidden Fortress.
  • Will we see any of the prequel planets again? I imagine that, at very least, we’ll see Coruscant, maybe as the new capital of the Republic.
  • Is the First Order really all that big? It seems like Starkiller Base was their main HQ, and we see very few other assets — just one Star Destroyer and a squadron of TIEs. Maybe they’re just red herring villains, and the real bad guys — Snoke and the Knights of Ren — will try and find a new ally, and the FO will be revealed as another —wait for it — phantom menace.
  • Clearly everybody knows Snoke, though it’s never really explained in what context. Maybe his career was an inverse Palpatine — he tried to take over the New Republic in its early days, but was discovered and defeated (hence his decrepit physical state). In revenge, he turned the son/nephew of the galaxy’s greatest hero against his family and government, and later slaughtered the nascent Jedi with his help. My guess is that the truth of Ben/Kylo’s betrayal will come out during Rey’s training, and it will radically shake her understanding of him, along with Han, Leia, and Luke’s relationship to him.
  • I still don’t see Kylo getting any kind of redemption arc, though he evokes great pity for a murderer and an accomplice to genocide. (I never really felt all that bad for Vader, even before the prequels.)
  • Who are the Knights of Ren? As Kanata demonstrates, there are a lot of Force-sensitive beings who are neither Jedi nor Sith. And apart from Kylo, none of the other Rens carry a light saber. My guess is that, like Snoke, they’re an older clan of warriors who hate the Jedi but are not allied to the Sith.
  • Is Snoke really Darth Plagueis? I really, seriously doubt it, even though his theme song sounds an awful lot like the music that plays in the scene in ROTS where Palpatine tells Anakin about the ancient (?) Sith. (Despite the EU novel that has since been decanonized, I don’t think he was actually Palpatine’s master.) But if he was, I imagine long years of keeping himself alive have taken their toll, leaving him in the weakened state in which he appears to be. (That giant hologram is definitely overcompensating.)
  • Who are the new characters? Del Toro is playing a villain, but he might not be an FO guy, possibly one of Leia’s political rivals or a crime lord seeking to take advantage of the chaos after the Senate was destroyed. Maybe he’s the head of an obscure mining colony on the edge of civilized space specializing in collecting old relics. Just throwing that out there... There’s also supposed to be a new female lead, which would be awesome.
  • All Boba Fett and Jar Jar, all the time.