YOU'RE GONNA BE SPOILED
I suppose I could have tried to write something spoiler-free. However trying to talk about anything interesting here while dancing around spoilers... naaah, sounds like hard work to me.
In other words, we're entering the spoiler zone.
I saw this with a bunch of relatives today. I got dragged along by my sister, who then (dammit) didn't even go herself. I should have just ducked out and done some stuff I wanted to do, but it's not as if I actually object to seeing films in cinemas or anything. I quite enjoy Star Wars. I even like the prequels more than is normal.
Seeing it in 3D was a mistake. Admittedly it was often really cool (e.g. the 3D title crawl, the patented George Lucas Star Destroyer Mega-Canyon Drop but bigger, etc.), but I felt as if the 3D was costing me a little definition in the image. It's like stepping back from Blu-ray to VHS, but a bit more annoying. I assumed this was just my spectacles being a bad fit with 3D goggles, but then to my surprise other people sort of agreed with me when I said so afterwards. I'll be actively avoiding 3D from now on, I think.
Best thing I saw in today's cinema expedition: the trailer for Spielberg's The BFG. I'll probably also see the Harry Potter spin-off, although I expect it to be a blatant cash-grab.
Short summary: it's good. Everyone else in my party loved it. It's more exciting, it feels more real, the acting is way better than the prequels, etc. Solid Star Wars entertainment. However to me it doesn't feel movie-shaped. There's no slow introductory bit at the beginning. A New Hope gave us lots of time to get to know Luke Skywalker, but this is doing the modern thing of doing lots of things at once. The plot doesn't rise or fall, really. It kicks off right away at an impressive, high-momentum 80mph, continues at the same 80mph throughout and then eventually just stops at, yes, our old friend 80mph.
Rey probably does get enough set-up. It's not much, especially compared with her template character (Luke) in A New Hope. It's a quick glimpse of her life, but we do get something.
Thinking this through, I wonder if it might not be Finn who feels dropped-in to me? We follow him for a while as Stormtrooper With Blood On His Helmet, but that's not the same as engaging with John Boyega. Maybe a rewatch might help me overcome...
Meanwhile, just as the introduction doesn't feel like an introduction, I don't think the grand finale feels like a grand finale. The Death Star blowing up looks amazing, but it's tagged on and it doesn't have a tenth of the weight of the Death Star destructions in A New Hope or even Return of the Jedi.
There's Kylo Ren and Han Solo, obviously. That's great. That's the reason for this film's existence. Kylo Ren is where the film shakes off its Lucas straitjacket and becomes powerful and vital. I also think it's hilarious that the Darth Vader substitute/wannabe is an ugly emo goth teen. (The rest of the cast are great too, mind you. I have no qualms about them picking up the baton.) However the character stuff (Kylo Ren etc.) and the Death Star space battle don't reinforce each other and only happen simultaneously for plot reasons.
I wonder if I might not be seeing the influence of TV. When you reach the end, what you'll want to do above all is watch Episode VII. That's a strength. I admire it. That's Abrams using the storytelling skills he's been honing for years. However it also feels like TV. It's a mega-budget blockbuster, yes, but structurally it's like TV. The film doesn't end, or if you prefer doesn't have any real resolution. The dead young people are blatantly not dead, while mortal enemies are stopped from killing each other by the Hand of Scriptwriter.
Empire Strikes Back also has a cliffhanger ending, of course. I think that works because that's clearly what the story's about at that point. It's just Vader trying to capture our heroes. There isn't a ticking clock to a Death Star about to commit planetocide in the background.
Thinking about this some more, I think that's one respect in which Episode VII is weaker than, say, The Phantom Menace. The latter has four plot threads going on at the finale and they're all clear and feel as if they have roughly equal dramatic weight. 1. the Jedi vs. Darth Maul, 2. Anakin and the fighter dogfight in space, 3. the droid battle + Jar-Jar, 4. Amidala retaking the palace from the Trade Federation. Doing all four at the same time works, even though one of them stars Jar-Jar and another stars Jake Lloyd and could easily have been as bad as the pod race. They feel like four individual battlefronts in the same battle, i.e. kick the villains off Naboo.
Episode VII's finale, though, has only two things going on at once... 1. X-wings trying to shoot down the Super Death Star before it blows up the planet, 2. Kylo Ren having a bitch fight with heroes. Admittedly these are less well-integrated than the four plotlines in The Phantom Menace, but even so 1. feels kind of perfunctory and 2. really is just a bitch fight and has a non-resolution. (Can't fault the emotion and intensity of its participants, though.)
Oh, and because Disney's planning to make a Star Wars film a year forever, the heroes will never be able to win conclusively. The Empire is dead, long live the Empire! Sorry, the First Order. Who are they? How are they different? Admittedly they're not an Empire, but the one in A New Hope isn't quite an Empire either. They were bellyaching about the Republic and the Senate, just as the First Order does in Episode VII. However even had there been clear differences between the Empire and the First Order (which I don't think there are), they wear the same uniforms, talk the same and do the same evil stormtroopery things. I don't really mind, though. It's not a problem. They're classic baddies.
The Lucas-recycling I don't mind. It's Star Wars. They're sticking close enough that you can spoil the film just by thinking about What Traditionally Happens In The First Film Of A Star Wars Trilogy, but what the hell. (You can also play the same game with the entire XII-IX trilogy, so my theory for Rey's father isn't Luke or Obi-Wan but Kylo Ren himself. That would reflect their inherited plot roles and add poignance when we look back one day and see this film's Rey-Han scenes as grandfather-granddaughter. Unfortunately Kylo Ren looks about fifteen, but Adam Driver's 32. You could probably scrape it.) Oh, and the film's not exclusively a cut-and-paste of A New Hope, since they're reminding us of all the Original Trilogy's most famous planets (a desert, a forest, a snowscape, space battles around a Death Star, etc.)
Going through the options for Rey's father, in my estimated order of probability:
1. Kylo Ren
Upside: the most dramatic option, both for future stories and retrospectively when rewatching Episode VII
Downside: might be seen as too literal a retread of Luke/Vader. There's also the age thing, but then again all the 1970s survivors (Luke, Han, Leia) look to me the age of grandparents, not parents. I think the dates work out better if Emo Goth Darth is older than he looks.
Let me look this up. Harrison Ford (73) has five children and three grandchildren, one of whom is almost the same age as Daisy Ridley. Carrie Fisher is 59 (and was 21 in A New Hope). Hamill is 64.
2. Luke Skywalker
Upside: would mean that everyone in the classic trilogy had a son or daughter in the next generation Disney movies. (Not counting droids and Wookiees who don't need replacing, because they don't visibly age. Chewbacca must be sodding immortal. Forget the original trilogy; he's in the prequels! And he's still killing stormtroopers!)
Downside: "your father is Luke" is a less dramatic reveal than "your father is that war criminal whom you witnessed killing his own father, i.e. your grandfather"
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi
Upside: we'd have an excuse for Ghost Ewan McGregor scenes
Downside: it doesn't look as if the dates fit. Kenobi died too long ago. Ren would have to be older, wouldn't she? We could apply some Jedi age-stretching handwave, perhaps, but that would change the emotional impact of her "marooned orphan" immediate backstory and even then who would her mother be? A Jawa?
4. Someone we've never heard of
It's not completely impossible, I suppose. Instead of "Kylo Ren is your father", you could twist it into "Kylo Ren killed your father". The problem with that is that it's the initial lie Luke is told in A New Hope, thus putting the post-Lucas trilogy's big reveal on a par with the original trilogy's first outer layer of the onion.
5. Emperor Palpatine, Yoda, Samuel L. Jackson or some other random character from the prequels
Now we're getting silly.
I really doubt it.
7. Someone without force powers
Not going to happen.
Anyway, Harrison Ford I'm delighted to see back. Chewbacca is oddly one of the film's funniest characters. Hamill is bizarrely fantastic with that grizzled look. Carrie Fisher though is unrecognisable. There's one shot where you can tell it's her, but otherwise she's this creepy botoxed plastic doll that's probably got Jim Henson's hand up its backside. Can't people just let themselves grow old? Natural ageing looks beautiful. Wrinkles are great!
The newbies are all top-notch. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac (who reminded me of a young Bruce Campbell)... all fantastic. Max von Sydow! Sheer class. BB-8 is adorable. Oscar Isaac doesn't get much to do, but he has swagger and charm. Although now I'm thinking about it, that Empire officer who was giving Kylo Ren a hard time was less three-dimensional than Peter Cushing.
I like the harder, more realistic edge. Stormtrooper blood! Gunning down all the villagers... ooooh, yes. That's a level of evil we're not particularly used to in Star Wars. They call in air strikes. There's an old woman extra with a cool ugly face. I even love simple things like the metallic sound we get when Ridley taps that water flask in her first scene. We also have fights that look like fights (ahem, original trilogy) and also don't look like ballet dancing (ahem, prequels).
Frivolous comment: Vader's beaten-up helmet reminded me of Swamp Thing. Or do I mean Arcane?
If I had to score it out of ten, I'd give it a 7.5. I like everything in it. I'd have just liked the film to modulate that with more fortissimo and pianissimo. Everyone's introduced so deftly and efficiently that we've hardly had a chance to spend much time with them. I like them all. They're good. If they'd had more luxurious introductions, I'm sure I'd have liked them even more. (The comics, TV, etc. of the expanded universe will probably fill that out for people who read that stuff, but I'm going to be selfish and ask for a film that doesn't need me to read up a bunch of other stuff beforehand.) I need to see it again in 2D, though.
Comparing it with the other Star Wars movies, I'd say it's better than Attack of the Clones and Return of the Jedi.
Does this make me a grumpy old bastard?