'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is better than the prequels in every way except one

The force awakens daisy johnYouTubeFinn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Their acting was natural when compared to the actors in the prequels.

The long wait is finally over, and it looks like it was worth it.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” set a new worldwide box-office opening record with $528 million. It’s also winning over fans: IMDb users have given the film a rating of 8.9 out of 10.

So, it has to be good, right — as in better than the prequels and just as good as the original films?

Warning: spoilers for the film below.

Well… first let’s look at the story. Set 30 years after the events of the sixth episode, “Return of the Jedi” (1983), “Force Awakens” has Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gone missing. He’s being searched for by the Resistance, a military force supported by the Republic, and the First Order, a successor to the evil Galactic Empire. In an attempt to find him, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) finds a part to a map to Skywalker’s whereabouts, but is captured by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

This sets off a chain of events that includes Finn (John Boyega), a rouge stormtrooper, and desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) meeting up with the original-trilogy characters. The newcomers discover what they’re made of as they try to stop the First Order’s planet-destroying Starkiller Base — a planet turned into a machine — and find Skywalker.

Less backstory, much more exciting plot

Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones hayden christensenStar Wars Episode II Attack of the ClonesObi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in ‘Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.’ McGregor has been well-received, but Christensen’s performance has been loathed for being whiny.

The film only gives us glimpses into the backstories and motives of the new characters. This is somewhat jarring compared to how “The Phantom Menace” (1999) and “A New Hope” (1977) played out. Still, I definitely want to know more about these people and what will happen to them in Episodes VIII and IX. This is in contrast to the prequel trilogy because, for the most part, moviegoers knew what was going to happen: The Jedi will fall, the Republic will become the Empire, and Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader.

Acting that had genuine laughs

And speaking of characters, the acting was much better than in the prequels, which often came across as wooden. No one was stiff this time and the dialogue was more natural. Boyega played off Isaac and Harrison Ford — who was back as Han Solo — well, and this led to a few laughs. Rey’s story arc is arguably the most compelling, and she’s poised to become the future star of the series.

StormtroopersLucasfilmThe clone troopers in ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ left, vs. the Stormtroopers in ‘The Force Awakens.’

Much better use of practical effects

So what about the special effects? Well, it was so refreshing to see a wide use of real sets and locations, practical effects, and costumes. Granted, the prequels also had these, but Episodes I to III had way too much CG. “Force Awakens” had a good balance of everything. For example, the clone troopers in “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) were CG and it painfully showed, but in “Force Awakens,” the Stormtroopers were real people in real costumes. And it showed. They looked better.

For the record, I don’t hate the prequels. They might not have been as enjoyable as the original trilogy, but I did appreciate how they explained the backstory that would lead to it. Yes, galactic politics isn’t for everyone, but even I knew back in 1999 that such things were going to play an important role because they had to. I’m still invested in the prequels’ stories, but I’ve come to terms with the quality of those films.

Set finalYouTube/LucasFilmMcGregor (left) on the set of ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace’ with Darth Maul (Ray Park) (center) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). ‘Force Awakens’ did not rely as highly on CG effects as the prequels.

The biggest weakness in “The Force Awakens”
Overall, people should be relieved since “Force Awakens” lives up to the hype in ways the prequels just couldn’t. Even so, the most disappointing aspects of the new film for me were the moments clearly derivative of the original trilogy. Starkiller Base (more or less the Death Star of Episodes IV and VI) and the attempt to destroy the base (Episode VI) probably stood out the most in this regard. Why couldn’t the filmmakers find more original elements?

Well, franchise creator George Lucas was a consultant early on and wrote treatments for the sequel trilogy. After some back and forth, it was decided that Luke, Han, and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) would get top billing, with the younger stars taking over in the next two episodes. In fact, director J.J. Abrams was quoted as saying that he wanted to focus on those three characters “so audiences could have one more chance to enjoy them before a fitting send-off.”

But I hope the new characters will inspire stories that live up to the grandeur and fun on the original trilogy without rehashing plot threads. If “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is any indication, then the Force is strong with them and the new trilogy.

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