When a franchise is picked up again by new people years after it originally ended, there is a spark of worry. The new work might not live up to the expectations, or perhaps it is not true enough to the original. Maybe the weaknesses of the old work linger in the new work. Fortunately, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not disappoint in either of these respects.
The weeks leading up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and especially the days before watching it, I was excited. I tried to keep away from potential spoilers and even spoiler-free discussions about the film; I wanted to see it with fresh eyes. Even so, I was worried my excitement for the film would spoil the experience, if it would not live up to my quite high expectations. Fortunately, this was not the case.
In the days before seeing The Force Awakens at the movies, I rewatched all six original films. They are films I have seen many times. In fact, I have loved Star Wars since I was a child. I watched the original trilogy first, and then the prequel trilogy, and I loved all the films.
For the longest time, The Phantom Menace was, in my mind, the best installment. However, this is because it is a child-friendly film I watched as a child, meaning an idealized version of it was stuck in my mind. As an adult, I do not enjoy Episode I as much as I used to. The much-too-childish tone set especially by Jar Jar Binks as well as his antics (which despite all logic work out for him) severely pulls down the quality of the film. The Phantom Menace is thus the weakest Star Wars film, in my opinion.
Attack of the Clones feels like it sets up the story for Revenge of the Sith, which in my opinion is the strongest installment of the original six films. In addition, the prequel trilogy provides more context for the original trilogy, which improves the quality of the series a lot. The films in the original trilogy are classics, but the prequels provide the context to fully appreciate them.
It is quite obvious that Star Wars has a binary, simplistic view of morality, in which one either accepts a pre-defined version of good or is completely corrupted by evil; reality is not quite that simple, and metaphysical good and evil are not the best material with which to create great heroes and villains: those with whom one can sympathize. The prequel trilogy explored Darth Vader's background, explaining why he became Vader and thus improving Vader as a character. In doing so, Revenge of the Sith also provides some very emotional scenes, which is partly why it is my favorite film of the original six.
The reason why many do not like the prequel trilogy is probably that it simply did not live up to their idealized view of the original trilogy. The prequel trilogy is in no way perfect, but it is definitely not bad and Revenge of the Sith may be, in my opinion, the best Star Wars film... until now.
The Force Awakens
In order to fully explain what I think of the new film, this article will have to include minor to (perhaps) medium spoilers. Read on at your own peril.
I watched The Force Awakens with some friends on December 26, 2015, and it truly was entertaining. It is definitely worth seeing at the movies. Other than the thoughts that struck me while watching the film, what may be my purest (although most unrefined) opinion on the film is what I tweeted shortly after seeing it: "Saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Felt more... gritty/heavy (love it). Great characters! Plot was partly rehashed from ep. IV-VI. Still good! B+" I expanded on this on my Facebook page:
I just came back from seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film felt more... gritty and heavy than previous installments, which I love. Still humorous in many places, but not to the ridiculous extent of Episode I. The characters were great! (And it's nice to see the universe has more black people than Mace Windu and Lando, lol.) Plot was partly rehashed from episodes IV-VI; arguably, I think it was better than episodes IV-VI, but still a rehash. Overall, the film was very good! I'm excited for the future of Star Wars! B+ (Patrick Hall on Facebook, December 26, 2015)
The Force Awakens did, indeed, feel gritty and heavy. It did not have the childish tone of The Phantom Menace and it did not sugarcoat the horrors of battle. This was established in the first scene when one stormtrooper—Finn—refused to take part in slaughtering innocents. The audio and visuals also felt powerful and gritty, which created a thrilling and wonderful atmosphere in which to tell the next chapter of Star Wars.
Humor was still present throughout the film, but it felt natural and added to the experience and the characters. In addition, there was quite a bit of fan service in the shape of references to prior films; it was nice to get such nods, but there may have been a few too many and they seem to be designed mostly for the first viewing, after which they may not age well.
The film had a balanced and diverse cast with actors who did a very good job. I liked the characters and their interactions quite a bit, and this may have been the strongest element of the film (along with the heavy and gritty atmosphere). Old favorites returned and great, new characters were introduced. I look forward to following their journeys in future films.
One complaint I have is that the plot was partly rehashed from episodes IV through VI—only a thousand times bigger! In many ways, the plot felt fresh and interesting, but the Death Star threat was essentially borrowed once more. Instead of the Death Star, there was a new super weapon built into a planet, and the film even took the time to compare the literal size of the planet to the Death Star, just to show that this new super weapon was a much, much bigger threat. Then the "Resistance" which fights against the remnants of the Empire called the "First Order" came up with a plan to destroy the planet, which included one team taking out the shields and some pilots blowing up a critical part of the super weapon planet in order to blow the entire thing into oblivion. This was a little too familiar to Episode VI, which already was a little too familiar to Episode IV.
Arguably, I do think The Force Awakens is better than both Episodes IV and VI, but the plot was familiar, nonetheless. Based entirely on its own merit, The Force Awakens would get an A, in my book. Placed in the larger context of the series in which it is the seventh episode, the film's grade is pulled down to a B+. I definitely recommend watching The Force Awakens, and I am excited for the future of Star Wars.
Edit: I watched the film again on February 5, 2016; my girlfriend needed someone with whom to go see it. I must say it was just as enjoyable this time as the first time I watched it. The element of surprise was of course not there anymore, but it is definitely not a film to just watch once.