Let’s get this out of the way: Spoiler Warning.
Now that’s done: As simply good filmmaking with verve and spark, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a significant bump up from J.J. Abrams’ recent directorial attempts. He produces a ton of stuff, but keep in mind the last two movies he actually directed were Star Trek: Into Darkness and Super 8, both of which were pretty disappointing. This is more like the two films that came before that, Star Trek or MI:3 Abrams, still with occasional irritating Abrams-y stuff but not to such a degree that it gets in the way of things.
Abrams’ casting choices were generally excellent. Daisy Ridley is Keira Knightley without any of the things that make Keira Knightley irritating. Oscar Isaac remains my choice as The Next Great Actor of This Generation despite giving such a Bro part (watch his performances in Most Violent Year and Ex Machina and tell me different). I think you could’ve picked a better Millennial Darth than Adam Driver – would’ve been interesting to see Jesse Eisenberg try that? – but he is fine. John Boyega as Fresh Prince From First Order was also entertaining. The level of fan service in the other parts was a bit too much for me – of the jokey cameos, by far my favorite has to be the stunt casting of Daniel Craig, hilarious in retrospect.
The one exception to casting excellence is Brendan Gleeson’s kid, the lead space Nazi, who was just awful – but how are you not supposed to be awful with such terrible lines. This was the one part I’d have recast: this role needed to be someone much older, the kind of person who looks like someone who could organize such a gigantic planetary weapon. Perhaps a veteran of the Battle of Endor, someone who could speak with a look in his eyes, faraway, of the joys of crushing the rebellion at Hoth, followed by the horror of those terrible little bear cubs smashing brave soldiers with their tiny paws of fury at the behest of the traitorous, manipulative rebellion that convinced them their droid slave was a god. Rufus Sewell, maybe. You needed it to not be another fresh faced Millennial.
In my view, the movie could be improved dramatically with a few small tweaks. The decision to do the whole thing as an homage instead of a subversion is not what I would’ve done. In this case, the early on destruction of Systems Where The New Republic Blathers was far too easy and carried zero emotional weight, the planetary equivalent of killing Biggs (in a Reddit thread, they say a scene is cut with Leia sending the black ambassador-looking woman to the Republic to beg for help). But the relationship between the Resistance and the Republic and the First Order needed to be clarified. If the First Order is just a powerless rump of the Empire in the sway of a new strain of Sith-like leaders (it is notable that Gleeson has just as much right to speak and appear before Massive Bald Alien as Driver, and without bowing), it’s actually more like a Resistance, right? A group of militarized terrorists who seek to destroy the re-established Republic is pretty compelling stuff.
I might have done all the same things this story did but in a slightly different order. You could start roughly the same way, with all the New Hope echoes. But by the time that Solo and the Resistance enter the picture, the context should’ve been different. They should be the old ignored mercenaries and spies who are no longer believed by the New Republic when they warn of a rising menace. They’re seeking Skywalker not just because they need him to battle the First Order, but because he’s the only person with the status and respect to tell the New Republic they have something to fear – that this planetary weapon system is soon to be fully operational, and that it could wipe out their system in an instant. The New Republic, just like the Old, should ignore these threats as not real or all that threatening – grown soft already in their parliaments, they should dismiss this ex-Imperial movement as a real threat to strike them. The Resistance knows the truth, and they determine, even without legal permission, to act on it – to strike The First Order before they can destroy the New Republic and the lives of billions.
Then you have the same rough sequence play out, the kidnapping, the assault, etc. – except unlike A New Hope, they’re just a little too late this time. They watch in horror as the weapon fires – except it’s not the tiny Resistance they’re targeting this time (who would ever use a weapon that size on a movement that couldn’t fill a Costco?) but a whole system and the seat of its representative government. Cut to all those planets blowing up. Cut back to the weapon, which Poe Dameron (who Abrams, in his stupid way, wanted killed off) and this grab bag unit destroys – except this time, too late to save the government which underestimated the new menace.
The chief space Nazi is sorry to hear that they lost the girl, sorry to hear that Millennial Darth was shamed and in pain, sorry too that their massive project was destroyed – but it served its purpose, you see. “The Republic, old and new, is dead. The universe is in chaos once again. And out of the chaos, as there always is, we hear a call for order. And we will answer it.”
Such an approach would make the final sequence more desperate, more meaningful. They need Luke Skywalker now – not to talk sense into the pigheaded Republic, but to train an apprentice to save the Galaxy from an evil that has the opening it needs to rule once again.