Now I'm not talking in terms of revenue or popularity or even technical achievement. I mean as a quality story unto itself, where does it rank?
I've watched "The Force Awakens" again and I enjoyed it this 2nd time as much as I disliked it originally. I feel like I've gotten the full experience I'm going to get from it without knowing where the next chapters will take things. This is good and bad because TFA is the shiniest, fastest model in the series thus far, but it has very little going on under its shiny hood. This is the worst Star Wars film in terms of story but it is the best Star Wars in terms of execution.
I have to explain why its so great in the most obvious sense and so terrible in the least obvious sense before explaining where I rank it in the Star Wars canon as a Star Wars fan. And here is my current ranking of the previous films:
6. Star Wars Episode 1 "The Phantom Menace"
5. Star Wars Episode 4 "A New Hope"
4. Star Wars Episode 2 "The Attack Of The Clones"
3. Star Wars Episode 5 "The Empire Strikes Back"
2. Star Wars Episode 3 "The Revenge Of The Sith"
1. Star Wars Episode 6 "The Return Of The Jedi"
They are ranked in ascending quality and also by ascending dramatic impact, climaxing in the birth and death of Darth Vader. This seems designed by George Lucas that each story in the 2nd trilogy would compliment its mirroring story in the 1st trilogy, while still working together as its own cohesive trilogy. The Godfather Part 2 (made by Lucas' mentor Francis Ford Coppola) has a similar story structure in that we are given a prequel to the 1st film while given its sequel. The two stories told in Part 2 compliment and continue Part 1. The experimental filmmaker in Lucas comes through in this radical structure of a 6 part story, (not merely a franchise).
Why The Force Awakens has the worst STORY?
Episode 7 is a more than competent script based on a very thin and uninspired plot. Its the story of a long existing space war that continues, despite being thought won. We are never shown how the characters in Episode 6 somehow failed to keep the peace after triumphing, but we are given clues throughout the film, mainly by the new antagonists. The powerful villain Kylo Ren has fallen to the same fate as Darth Vader, but you must watch the previous 6 films to fully understand the weight of this and who Darth Vader was to this universe. Supreme Leader Snoke seduced him we learn from one line of dialogue, but you must watch the previous 6 films to understand how tragic this is and what this would mean to the galaxies. The previous protagonists Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia all return and make small but powerful impacts on this new story, but if you don't know who they are, you will be lost. This film depends on the supreme storytelling of the previous films while doing very little on its own. You really won't know why people care about anything besides the fact that the people in black kill and the people in white don't. This is quite similar to the black vs white, underdeveloped format of A New Hope.
The only heavylifting done storywise in The Force Awakens is introducing and establishing the characters of Poe Dameron, Finn and Rey. They are original characters who fit very unoriginal roles in the Star Wars universe. The ace pilot hero (Luke & Anakin), the loyal and good hearted person who helps our heroes (Han & Qui-Gon) and the desert scavenger who is called upon to be a hero (Luke & Anakin). But their hero journeys are fairly easy and have no real explicit purpose besides being ends unto themselves.
Poe must bring back his droid and its contents to The Resistance so they can defeat The First Order's evil plans. And be their best X-Wing pilot. Finn does this first task for him and then he blows up the villains' planet without much challenge. He's a pale and vague hero, not comparable to the heroism or importance or motivation of any previous heroes. Not even Lando or Qui-Gon.
Finn's morals stop him from becoming a killer for The First Order and so he escapes, also freeing Poe. After Rey saves the droid, Finn delivers the droid to The Resistance and then helps to save Rey from Kylo Ren. He falls in battle with Kylo, but distracts him long enough for Rey to power up and save the day. He grows as a character somewhat and impacts the plot, but his choice to stay and help is more as a debt to Poe and a caring for Rey. He is not really motivated for The Resistance, democracy, balancing The Force or anything but bitterness towards The First Order. Essentially, he's just a copy of Han Solo and the child version of Anakin Skywalker.
Rey is the central hero. She saves the droid, saves herself and Finn by flying the Millennium Falcon, finds Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and then escapes Kylo Ren before he can turn her evil and then flies to give the lightsaber back to Luke. She is basically Luke with a sprinkle of Anakin thrown in. She is a reluctant hero unlike Luke who was jumping at the chance to prove himself a hero. She doesn't lose family as he did. She saves no one but the droid. She escapes quite easily. She beats Kylo in a lightsaber duel but doesn't finish him. She does all of this while gaining and accepting superpowers. Her main, but not sole, purpose in the story is to find Luke and give him a lightsaber. Qui-Gon sacrificed his life for The Jedi. Luke rescued a princess and destroyed a Death Star. Rey doesn't have much of a struggle or fight, besides physical bumps, bruises, a scary flashback and seeing Han die.
The script puts too few obstacles in the way of the heroes and has them triumph with convenient luck (The Force) or minor smarts (knowing which button to push to stop aliens on a ship) or being better in a physical scrap. They don't show as much faith, trust, bravery or conviction as previous Star Wars heroes. They are more like Marvel superheroes than Jedi knights or Alliance rebels. Rey, Finn and Poe are flat characters AND SO WERE THE CHARACTERS IN EPISODES 1 & 4. Like those characters, they will surely grow into much bigger roles later. But they aren't as complex or exciting as the previous heroes, so they have a lot more catching up to do if they hope to stand among them as Star Wars heroes and as Hollywood creations.
The themes found here center on Rey's awakening to her forgotten purpose, Finn's following his morals and Kylo's stubbornness to do right. We previously went through this with Luke, Han and Vader and with much more depth and backstory. The Original Trilogy was about confidence, oneness, fighting spirit, freedom, hope, honor and redemption. None of that is here. Its all dumbed down and slightly hinted at so we can focus on fights, spaceships, jokes, hip jackets, puppy love and cool bad guys. The script feels like a Star Wars ripoff that happens to include some aging Star Wars characters. It misses the essential intelligence and experimentation that propelled Star Wars for 30 years and not just 3 movies.
Why is The Force Awakens the best executed FILM?
There are lots of films that are perfectly executed, but they are not among the greatest films ever made. Because execution in film terms comes from the directing. But cinema is still a storytelling medium, not just a technical artform and a producer-driven "show business". JJ Abrams has executed this story better than any other Star Wars director executed their story. But his job was easiets because his story was the least complex conceptually, having already been pre-established in terms of theme, characterization and setting with 6 preceding stories while adding very little except in adorning stylistic improvement and reducing elements that caused fan complaint i.e. using modern dialogue, smoother digital graphics, an easier to understand rehash of previous stories and fairer roles for young, female and ethnically diverse actors.
JJ Abrams was handed a flat, dumb and rather boring script, but built an exciting and emotional visual world around it. This is the most cinematic of all the Star Wars films because there is always something visual happening. Moving imagery is the strongest storytelling tool in cinema. Its what separates film from literature and painting as artforms. While Empire is respected as the most well-directed and cinematic Star Wars film, it was propelled mainly from a great story and was not so far ranging in tones and touches as TFA. TESB was dark and sad but never light or fun. It was strong on acting and drama but weak on effects and action. Empire is a far better movie than Force Awakens, both in story and directing, but director Irving Kershner's job was easier because he had so much more to work with in characterization, themes, settings and plot. Abrams did not. But Abrams took a weak story and found its strengths - style, speed, humor and ACTION. The camera is always looking at something beautiful or doing something exciting. Actors are always being cute or flexing their dramatic chops. If the story is being cliche or boring, he focuses on robots, aliens, spaceship designs or cool action choreography. He's a master director, as good as any other in the Star Wars franchise. But also consider that his style of filmmaking was tailored to mediocre scripts and more modern audiences.
(So why do I rank Revenge/Sith and Return/Jedi so high? The directing is not as great as TFA or Empire, but its very close. But Revenge and Return have the two most important story moments in all of the series - Anakin becoming Vader and Vader becoming Anakin again. Because of those moments, the films are packed with climax and resolution: Boba Fett dying, Han & Leia finally together, Luke becoming a Jedi master, the death of Yoda, the death of Mace Windu, Yoda vs Palpatine, Luke vs Palpatine, the birth of Luke & Leia, the death of Padme, Obi-Wan and Anakin finally dueling. Because the stories are so grand, the action has PURPOSE and the film had more room to breathe. Revenge is the darkest, most violent, most heartbreaking and most visually dramatic Star Wars film... for the dramatic reason that it is the background film for Return. And Return is the only Star Wars film to combine action, philosophy, romance, comedy on top of being the most dramatic. Because it is the original climax of not just one BUT TWO trilogies. The Disney trilogy must similarly build all of their subplots to a tie together and climax NINE FILMS to best these two Star Wars chapters.)
So where does The Force Awakens rank?
For entertainment without thinking this is the best Star Wars. For eye candy, consistent smiles and a pulse-pounding attack on the senses, this is the best Star Wars. For inspiring, educating and making you feel genuine emotions, this is not the best Star Wars. For originality, risk-taking or dramatic traditon, this is the worst Star Wars. This is a Disney kids film based on Star Wars. It could have been worse. It could have been better. Here's where I rank it:
7. The Phantom Menace
6. A New Hope
5. The Attack Of The Clones
4. The Force Awakens
3. The Empire Strikes Back
2. The Revenge Of The Sith
1. The Return Of The Jedi
Smack in the middle! Why? Because half of it is the best Star Wars and half of it is the worst Star Wars. A New Hope, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones all have better stories and simply good execution. Empire, Revenge and Return are all better in story and, adjusting to the standards of their time, close in execution to Force Awakens'. Even without watching other Star Wars, the top 3 films work on their own, full of enough drama, character and action to satisfy non-Star Wars fans. And watching the others only helps them and does not hurt them because they are original and self-contained to tell their own stories without much need for sequels or prequels. TFA leaves us asking too many questions and asks us to watch the other films too much to be its own successful standalone story. (Why would I rank A New Hope so low when its easily the best standalone story? The execution. While not poorly executed, the levels of story and directing were upped significantly by 4 later films. It was the first Star Wars, so it didn't have to be the greatest in terms of storytelling and style, when it had the most exciting concept AND had the luxury of being its own movie because sequels and prequels weren't guaranteed. Hey, its still better than 2 of its very enjoyable prequels!)
I can't be more fair to TFA than 4 out of 7. Thats a very impressive debut for the 7th film in a series, beating the original movie, the two previous trilogy openers and a fairly modern entry.
Where will Episodes 8 and 9 rank? Could one crack the Top 3? Time will tell. If Disney can expand the story and keep up the awesome stylistic choices, then we may have another Star Wars classic in our future. Let's hope so.
EDIT: Maybe the worst part of Ep 7 is how soon it is reveled that Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia. If the film had saved the surprise til Han confronted Kylo, it would've been powerful. Why remove it before? Did it really add anything to his encounter with Rey? Did Han and Leia have to explicitly say that their son had turned darkside? Leia could've simply hinted it by stressing Kylo to be taken alive if possible. This is what I mean when I say the film has no sense of drama.