The first Star Wars novel I read was Jedi Search, the first book in Kevin J Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy. I loved it, finished that trilogy, and ended up reading about twenty Expanded Universe novels in total; I stopped after a couple of the YA novels describing the Jedi training of Han and Leia's children, at which point I thought it was getting a little excessive.
I enjoyed The Phantom Menace, which was released when I was 15. But whether because I was 15 instead of 8, or because the film just wasn't that good, or some combination of the two, it left little lasting impression on me. By the end of 2002 I was (I think) a pretty rare breed of human, one who'd read a heap of Star Wars novels but hadn't seen Attack of the Clones. I briefly returned to the fray in 2005 at the urging of some uni friends. It was two days after the release of Revenge of the Sith, and some of them were on their fourth or fifth viewing already.
It was fun enough – big battles, long lightsaber duels – but again it made little impression on me, and I went back into Star Wars hibernation, only interrupted by an occasional viewing of A New Hope once or maybe twice.
Whatever criticisms of The Force Awakens that I have (and I'll get to them), one thing it has undoubtedly succeeded at is awakening my interest in the whole saga. I think it's because it's such a terrifically entertaining film that I want to think about it and contemplate it afterwards: How did the Millennium Falcon get stolen and re-stolen several times and end up within running distance of the most Force-sensitive person in the whole canon? (I don't think this will have any satisfactory answer for me; it's a coincidence much too far.) How does Rey's intuiting Jedi skills after having her mind read a couple of times compare to Anakin or Luke? Much of the story follows that of ANH; how do the prequels compare?
The latter question was what really got me going. I watched a fan edit of the prequels on YouTube (I'm surprised that they evade the copyright tsars for as long as they do), which was mostly episodes II and III cut by about 50%. Then a fan edit of episode I. Then I (maybe partly in penance, but partly out of genuine interest) bought the DVD set and watched the full cuts, Jar Jar and all.
The prequels get a lot of hate, some of which I think is a sort of social herding behaviour rather than well-grounded dislike*. But fair enough, Jar Jar might be the most annoying character I've ever seen (certainly far more annoying watching as an adult than as a 15-year-old), and most things to do with Hayden Christensen were awful. They're glaring flaws which make the prequels strictly worse than the original trilogy, and the inclusion of a Christensen Force-ghost and a Gungan at the end of the 2011 revisions of Return of the Jedi left me shaking my head at George Lucas's attachment to them.
*(I think it's interesting to go over the evolution of Phil Plait's opinions. In 1999:
I liked the movie. I was prepared to hate it, but it was a lot of fun, and the special effects were amazing. I could have done without Jar Jar, but he was far less annoying than any three Ewoks or one of C3PO.
After a three year wait since the last movie, "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones" is finally out. With four movies in the series under his belt, George Lucas may finally be getting the hang of it. Surprise! I liked it. It was far better than "Phantom Menace", but then, it had to be (I know, I said I liked it in my review, but I also said I was expecting it to be really bad, and was pleasantly surprised).
Then the long wait, to be finally broken with "Phantom Menace" which, let's be honest, sucked. "Clones" was better, in that it didn't suck as much as "Menace", but that's damned with faint praise indeed.
So having said all that, I'm here to say that for the most part, "Revenge of the Sith" is a good flick!
This paper (PDF) by Salganik et al. may also be relevant, and even if not, it's always fun to think about – they created an artificial music market and let users download songs, randomising the users into a group which could see download counts and one which couldn't. The final rankings of the songs correlated only loosely between the different conditions.)
But the prequels as a whole tell the grandest story in the Star Wars films (so far!). Despite the interest and notional motivation being centred on the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the prequels' story is really that of Palpatine. And what a story that is! What a villain he is! Pulling the strings of the Trade Federation, in war and in politics, even working the mechanics of politics (using the bureaucrats advising Chancellor Valorum to weaken that position so that he could later strengthen it himself) in an epic quest for power, along with some personal treachery along the way. I think a Star Wars movie should reward contemplation of the plot and characters, and the prequels definitely reward contemplation of Palpatine. It feels silly to be in awe of a fictional character, but I feel a sense of awe thinking about the scale of his plans anyway. George Lucas had a whole galaxy to play with, and he played with it pretty well.
(I just wish there'd been more details about the taxation dispute – what were the tariffs that the Republic wanted to set, and why did they suddenly need the revenue? People with differing political opinions could disagree on which side was in the right and which in the wrong, making the distinction between the goodies and baddies – already quite hard to discern at times in II and III – even more satisfyingly complex.)
The Force Awakens does not leave me in awe of any character or reward careful thought about the plot, though to be fair there are a couple of instalments still to come. I don't expect the glorious galaxy-wide plot details of the prequels, since the presence of a decent-sized Empire or a descendant will make the good-versus-evil battle lines very stark. But TFA is so fun to watch – in terms of sheer in-the-moment entertainment value, I think it's second only to episode V, and the X-wing versus TIE fighter battles over a forest backdrop rewarded a second viewing on their own – that I think about it anyway.
- The replay of the ANH plot is annoying. I'm not really inclined to be forgiving about this, especially with all the nods to the original trilogy, but I do think there's some logic to having a new Death-Star-type weapon. Once it's demonstrated that you can build a planet-destroying weapon, any evil empire worth its salt is going to want one. Building one out of a planet feels like a reasonable evolution to me, so the roll-your-eyes "Even bigger!" criticism I think doesn't quite hold. That the Starkiller has one fatal weakness just like the Death Star grates a little but is required for an interesting plot. Still, I'll be glad if episode VIII has a conversation about how conventional weaponry is a better investment and we don't have to go through this thing again in 2025 with an episode X pseudo-reboot.
- The mechanism of the Starkiller is a little over the top. I'm sort-of OK with rapidly absorbing a star's worth of energy, but then sending the "missiles" on a charted course through hyperspace??? (These trails are immediately visible elsewhere in the galaxy; they're described by Pablo Hidalgo, author of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary, as "Some weird-ass hyperspace-rip seen-across-the-cosmos kinda shit." That feels suspiciously like a post-hoc scramble for an explanation for a scene that was very unclear to me on first viewing.
While I don't want to see continual upgrades of superweapon power, I reckon there's a cool story arc using a weapon that can make a star go supernova – I'm borrowing here from the EU's Sun Crusher. The supernova would obliterate the planets in its own system, but would also cause some serious damage to life-forms in systems within a few tens of light-years. That could be quite a lot of planets that need evacuating (or shielding), especially near the galactic centre where the density of stars is higher. Since the radiation from the supernova travels at light-speed, but the Star Wars Universe allows faster-than-light communication, it'd be possible to plan this. In episode XIII, a minor plot point could be at a more distant planet, where official mourning by the supernova refugees is timed to coincide with when the supernova becomes visible to them. I'll happily sell this idea to Disney for two and a half percent of the profits.)
- They really ought to have made the destruction of the Hosnian system more emotionally resonant, probably moreso than the destruction of Alderaan was (both through Leia's pleading and through Obi-Wan's "great disturbance in the Force" line). Losing the Senate and the Republic's fleet seems like a huge loss – it should lead to at least some political chaos, and how big was that fleet? How big are the individual Republic-aligned systems' militaries, and can they pick up the slack? This is big-picture galaxy-wide war stuff that was glossed over very quickly so as to make the movie have the same "big empire versus plucky rebellion" dynamic as ANH, and I'll be particularly disappointed if subsequent fracturing of the New Republic and increasing dominance of the First Order is reduced to the introductory text crawl of episode VIII.
- Rey picking up Jedi skills so quickly is unprecedented, and unless Luke taught her some things as a toddler that she consciously forgot but subconsciously remembered, then I think I'll only be satisfied if she's the one who fulfils the prophecy and not Anakin. It'd bring the saga to a satisyfing conclusion if Rey defeats the Sith once and for all – a "Balanced" Force is the stable state where only the Jedi exist, instead of the dynamic Jedi-versus-Sith state. Unfortunately for me, a) apparently there's a story in Clone Wars which makes my interpretation of Balance non-canon, and b) if Darth Plagueis has really returned from the dead in the form of Snoke, then we're going to have Sith-versus-Jedi movies till the end of time. (Also, two Sith Lords versus a similar number of Jedi should mean frequent big strategic wins for the Sith.)
- A popular theory is that Rey is a Kenobi, with the main evidence being Obi-Wan talking to her when she touches Luke's lightsaber. I would grumble a little if Obi-Wan broke the Jedi code and had a child, and I prefer to think that it was Obi-Wan talking because he's the Force-ghost who usually talks to young will-be Jedi.
- I am really quite terrible at interpreting fiction, whether it's in film or text form. I totally misread Nabokov's Pale Fire only to have my ego blown to smithereens once I read some reviews and interpretations of it. I must similarly confess to my shame that I didn't actually pick up the 'Rey is a Skywalker' vibe on my first viewing, even though it makes a lot of sense and the main debate is which Skywalker she has as a parent.
- I saw one criticism that there's an enormously well-populated galaxy in the Star Wars Universe but that most of the action surrounds one family. On the one hand, it's an obviously correct point (one effectively acknowledged by the series of stand-alone films to be released in between the numbered episodes – I mean obviously Disney just want to wring as much money out of the franchise as they can, but pretending that there's a principle at stake...). On the other hand... I just don't mind it. Traits recurring down the generations, it's a good theme.
- Kylo's getting a lot of praise, and Kylo Ren Is Everything That Anakin Skywalker Should Have Been is a pretty good headline that captures just how dire Hayden Christensen's character was. But I find his inner struggle off-putting. I've always understood the Dark/Light distinction as manifesting or being caused by the Jedi's current feelings. Luke is tempted by the Dark side through his anger; in a calmer moment, he pauses and resolves to stay with the Light. By contrast, Kylo is battling with himself one level up – he wants to want anger and evil. It's not necessarily incorrect in the Star Wars Universe, but it feels like a qualitatively new development to me and I think the film would have worked just as well without the scene of him praying to Vader's helmet. (And really, that helmet....)
- Poe Dameron, good character.
- Finn's a bit ridiculous at times, though I guess as someone who lived most of his life in Stormtrooper brainwashing, that's reasonable.
- Phasma capitulated to the threat of a blaster awfully easily.
- In episode VIII, we'd better hear that story Maz Kanata promised.
- On my first viewing, I found the attack on the Starkiller Base unsatisfying as a climax, because the real reason I was in the cinema was to see Luke Skywalker again. "Luke Skywalker has vanished," read the opening crawl. BB-8's carrying a map to him! But having set up this great mystery, the movie left us with a scene that said to come back in 18 months. And I will be back in May 2017, but it seemed like all the planet-destroying war and so forth was just a pre-amble for a cliffhanger. I enjoyed it more on my second viewing, since I knew what to focus my attention on.
- On my first viewing I was happy to interpret the two pieces of the map as an allegory – R2-D2 had a private key needed to unlock the encrypted message held by BB-8 (or vice versa), but JJ Abrams didn't want to introduce cryptography details into a movie that kids are supposed to enjoy, so instead he represented it as a missing part of a map. After my second viewing I want to try to interpret it literally. (I have never seen an official Star Wars galactic map and don't know if what I'm about to say is consistent with canon.) The map shown by R2-D2 shows BB-8's part being a long way from the main arms of the galaxy. And this can make some sense – the volume surrounding the galaxy is enormous, and I'm quite willing to accept that it's generally uncharted by people within the galaxy, so that a partial map wouldn't correspond to anything on record. But, when Chewie and Rey drop out of Hyperspace near Ahch-To, the background is regular stars when it should instead show the galactic centre much like photos of the Milky Way's centre. I'm happy to give Disney this idea for free so that they can make the necessary change for the box-set release.
- BB-8 is the best droid in all seven movies and if I wasted hundreds of dollars on toys then I would buy one. I watched the original trilogy again before my second viewing of TFA, and there's really too much C-3PO in it. Making a new beepy droid, who the script-writers can have wandering around without 3PO's bumbling comic relief, was an excellent decision.
In conclusion, Star Wars is good and I like it.