(Deep breath) Okay, first, let's talk about the script!
I mean, it was great when it was called Star Wars. This was ineffectively recycled plot points that were then just half-assedly lampshaded (i.e., HAN: "So, it's another Death Star."). Add to that awkward dialogue, oddly placed and poorly delivered humor, and underdeveloped characters, and you've got yourself a sun-powered hot mess.
Speaking of Starkiller Base, can we talk about how five planets were destroyed, yet nobody once reflected upon it or seemed really that affected by it all? The Senate for the New Republic is gone! Did you even realize that? They could have had a wink to the audience, too! Leia says, "So, that's how democracy dies - with a big f--king gun."
Nobody seemed to know anybody who was on any of those planets. Nobody seemed to be terrified of the implications of the future of galactic, representative democracy. We/They just witnessed the biggest genocide ever on film (maybe?), and nobody reacted.
Speaking of acting, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher mailed in their performances. Ford's performance, in particular, seemed to suggest to me that, after about a dozen conference calls and meetings, he finally said, "Jesus, I'll do the damn movie! But, I want dump truck full of money and promise to kill me off, 'cause this is f--king IT for me, you understand? This. Is. It!"
Han and Leia didn't need to be in the film nearly as much as they were. Ren is their son. They miss him. They're "Rabbit Hole in Space." Done.
But, since the movie spent 12 trillion parsecs with him, let's talk about Han. He was a medal-winning, deathstar-co-killing badass AND a General AND a Rebel Alliance war hero AND Princess Leia's baby daddy, and somehow he's able to return to a life of anonymous smuggling? We're led to believe that everyone in the universe knows Luke Skywalker, but Han Solo is able to stick his thumb out as he walks up the road to solve next week's episode? He must be, without question, the worst outlaw smuggler in the galaxy if at age 70, he STILL has to endure the daily grind of routinely getting nearly killed in pursuit of a "big score." Shouldn't he have people working for him by now? If he had gone back to being an outlaw smuggler because he was sad, shouldn't he be living off all the money he'd made as a smuggler? Or a general? Or a prince/king/whatever? Why's he still swashbuckling through the galaxy and getting himself in debt to the guys from The Raid? (By the way - and I shouldn't have to tell you this but - if you haven't seen both The Raid and The Raid 2, clear the rest of your schedule for the day and watch them both IMMEDIATELY!) I kept waiting for the I'm-too-old-for-this-s--t moment, and it just never came. Apparently, Han Solo is one of those people who doesn't grow, evolve, slow down, or change their clothes at all as they age over the decades. You know lots of people like that, right? Yeah, me too. They should have USED Harrison Ford's age instead of desperately fighting against it. Why not let Han Solo be more thoughtful, seasoned, mature, and wise? Let him grow and change like a normal human being. That would be different, unexpected, and interesting - for us AND the actor.
Daisey Ridley was very good as Rey, especially with what she had to work with, script-wise. She's like Jennifer Lawrence, only with truthfulness, nuance, and depth. Good casting choice there; however, and this is a debate already tearing up the interwebs, Rey was boring to me. She has no weaknesses. She's evidently the hottest person in the galaxy, can fly the Millennium Falcon better that Han Solo, fix it better than Chewbacca, shoot blasters better than trained stormtroopers, control minds like Obi-wan, speak Droid like 3PO, fight with a light saber better than a YouTube sensation, and use the Force with greater ability than the dude who can stop f--king blaster shots in mid-air. Yawn. Even Superman had Kryptonite.
Finn. Finn, Finn, Finn . . .
If you've been programmed from birth to be an obedient, merciless space-Nazi - even if you escaped that life - wouldn't you be a little bit different from other people? Things like your social norms, points of reference, worldview, etc.? Anyone indoctrinated into a highly structured and ingrained sub-culture (reformed cult members, former gang members, North Korean defectors, former Marines, you name it) carries around with them very clear evidence of their past lives. Abrams seemed to want a kind of charismatic everyman from John Boyega that just didn't work and felt completely out of place. Watching Finn, you'd think that leaving the stormtroopers, after a life spent under their control, is about as emotionally taxing as quitting that part-time job at Starbucks because, "Bro, it totally sucks." (No offense to Starbucks intended; just using them as an example, I have no idea what it's like to work there. Though I have to say, I do prefer Caffe Bene's lattes.)
So, Finn worked in sanitation but was somehow assigned to the squad that accompanied Kylo Ren into a high-stakes, intelligence-gathering mission/combat zone? I'm no military strategist, but I wouldn't hire Carol Burnett's Cleaning Lady character to kill Osama Bin Laden.
What was Finn's actual purpose in the film, anyway? I wanted "Bob" from Office Space to walk on screen and ask Finn, "What would you say . . . you DO here?" Once he flipped sides, he didn't even bring any usable intel to the Resistance. Zilch. Then, he lied to everybody in the final briefing in order to go on the super dangerous suicide mission. And why? He wanted to score with Rey. Right. (I get it, man, she's apparently the only female under 60 in the whole galaxy but still . . . ) I don't know if the writers are planning on anything romantic developing between Finn and Rey, but their onscreen chemistry made Anakin and Padme's look downright salacious (crumb). By the way, why was it necessary for him to lie, anyway? He put billions of lives at risk by doing that and letting the Resistance trust that he knew how to bring down the shields. Couldn't he have just said, "Look, guys, to be honest, I don't know any more about this planet-killing laser than any of you do, but I do know that we have to save Rey, and I want to be a part of it because she's my friend?"
Poe was an interesting character and very well played by Oscar Isaac who, it seems quite clear now, is incapable of bad acting; they should have had him assume the Han Solo swashbuckler-type role. This movie had a fever, and the only cure was more Poe.
Adam Driver also did very well with what he had to work with. Tough deal for him, but he worked it about as well as anyone could have. The closest I ever came to having a real emotion during the film was when he was onscreen.
Regarding the mask: Darth Vader's mask was scary largely because we didn't know what he looked like under there, just that he was "more machine now than man, twisted and evil." Scary, right? It was unknown. Our imaginations did the work with the aide of John Williams' awesome score and James Earl Jones' badass voice. It's revealed fairly early that Ren a) doesn't need the mask and b) is totally normal under there. So, I guess this is all just a game of dress-up for the dude that idolizes Darth Vader? You mean, he's just a cosplaying, Goth kid under there?! Yeah, not scary.
But, let's be clear about these characters: None of them had any real, strong motivation that drove them forward or caused them any truly serious internal conflict. And, for that reason, none of the characters seemed real or worth really caring about. Think of the first film: Luke wants adventure . . . which leads him to "want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi." Leia wants freedom for her people . . . which leads her to become "part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor." Tarkin wants absolute power. Darth Vader wants "somebody called . . . uh . . . Skywalker!" Han Solo wants reward.
Simple Question: What's Rey's objective? To be reunited with her family? Okay fine - but then that just goes out the window in the second act, doesn't it? What possible stake does she have in the success of the rebellion - er, I mean . . . "Resistance." There was no "charred Owen and Beru corpses" moment. No real compelling reason for her to commit to the path she does. The only thing close to that comes in the light saber hallucination scene, which is too-little-too-late in the plot. If you are going to recycle the plot from A New Hope, then you also need to recycle plot points like those to justify your recycled hero's decisions.
Finn? To escape the Empire. So, he does. Aaaand then decides to go right back into the belly of the beast. For . . . what? Friendship? Love? I would get that and it would add an interesting character dimension, actually, if he'd never had that before now because of his background and so the chance at a real human connection now trumps anything else he's been feeling. But, that's not at all what was on the screen, in the script, or in his performance.
Poe? To fly and shoot things really well. And, he does. Kudos.
Kylo Ren's motivation is . . . to be like Darth Vader? Okay. Sure. Fine. Only there's one small problem, Kylo. I don't know if you read the last chapter of your copy of Darth Vader's biography, but guess what . . . Darth Vader TURNED GOOD AND KILLED HIS EVIL BOSS. Not the best role model if you wanna be a super villain when you grow up. Whoever finished A Christmas Carol and said, "Man, I need to become a parsimonious d--k!"
The First Order had no motivation. Just boiler-plate movie "space Nazis" stuff: order, control, zzzzz . . . Space Hitler and Andy Serkis were never really clear what they wanted. Revenge for the defeated Empire would have at least been a little understandable and interesting, but they didn't go there.
On that note: How. The Hell. Did the First Order come to be? How could the victorious Rebel Alliance/New Republic have s--t the bed so royally as to allow that to happen? The resurgence of a MASSIVE, all-powerful army of neo-Imperials is not a McGuffin. The "how" of it matters. It matters a lot if you want me to care. After the death of the Emperor and the decimation of the Empire, wouldn't someone be like, "Hey, have you guys noticed that a bunch of jerks are building enormous warships that look just like star destroyers, building a massive stormtrooper army, and, oh yeah, building a giant, star-eating, planet-destroying laser into the side of a planet? I wonder what's up with that. Should we maybe check that out? Maybe nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand?"
The film felt to me very much like an incredibly big-budget television pilot. It was like they were saying, "Hey, world! Here are some new characters. We hope you find them interesting and/or physically attractive enough to tune in next time!" That works fine for TV. Not films. Even films made with the intention of having sequels need to stand alone. Watch the first three Star Wars films again, and you'll see what I mean. Moreover, if they're planning on giving us these much-needed pieces of information in later installments, my response is that audiences shouldn't have to wait 18 months and shell out another $20 to learn things that would make the first film plausible and enjoyable.
This movie will make billions of dollars because . . . dude . . . Star Wars. And, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making an effects-driven thrill ride of a movie that is just plain fun. (Incidentally, I loved the X-wing dogfight scenes . . . very cool!) I had fun watching this film; it looked great and while it was playing, I honestly didn't care about the vast majority of its flaws.
Now, I've heard people say, "Listen, you can't judge the new films by comparing them to the originals. They're not the originals. And, they could never be. Those movies were great, but they're in the past now. We have to view this with a new, fresh lens. As a new piece of work."
Sorry, but I have to call bulls--t on that.
The makers of these films are riding the coattails of the originals, and it is the success of THOSE films that's going to make them billions of dollars now. They have no problem using the name of the original franchise as the main selling tool for these films. So, to me, it's only fair that this work be judged by the standard set by those products (films) whose name they are now using to sell this new thing.
With that said, to have staying power, like Episodes 4-6 do, films can't rely on thrills alone. They need other elements to carry them across the generations and continue to hold up long after the technology that helped create them has been rendered obsolete. They need compelling characters in good stories. They need humanity. They need to connect. They need to relate. I feel, unfortunately, what they need is what is lacking from this film.