WRITTEN REVIEW – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
This review of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ contains MINOR SPOILERS. Nothing considered a “twist” will be revealed but those wanting to know absolutely nothing about the movie before watching it should either come back to this review later or just skip to the last paragraph. You have been warned.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams & Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher & Mark Hamill
Music: John Williams
Release Date: December 17th 2015
Created as a labour of love by filmmaker George Lucas in the 1970s, the original ‘Star Wars‘ movie birthed the modern blockbuster and created a cultural institution that still resonates with young and old audience members today. However, despite one of the best movie trilogies of all time, George Lucas has preceded to lose audience good-will. It all started when the National Film Registry, established in 1989, wanted to preserve the original, award-winning version of ‘Star Wars‘. Lucas declined and offered to give them a “Special Edition”. The NFR, naturally, refused and it was all downhill from there.
A prequel trilogy that was generally well received at the time but would later be known as great cinematic disappointments had tainted the franchise on the big-screen. The franchise was considered laid to rest but in 2012 Disney bought LucasFilm for $4.05B (which George Lucas gave predominantly to charity) and commissioned a new trilogy of films before the ink was even dry on the agreement. Most of the marketing and promotion for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ has been based around an air of mystery and reassurances that this new era of “Star Wars” will not be like the prequels. With ‘Star Trek‘ (2009) director J.J. Abrams at the helm, can Disney revive the franchise while also charting a course for a new trilogy and spin-off films?
Set 30 years after the events of ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi‘, Luke Skywalker (Hamill) has disappeared and the Jedi have become a myth and legend with many even doubting their very existence. In the wake of his absence, The First Order have grown, led by dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Driver) and are hoping to track him down by retrieving a map hidden by Resistance Pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) inside a small BB-8 droid. BB-8 is found by desert-scavenger Rey (Ridley) and reformed Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) and the three attempt to outrun the First Order with the help of Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca.
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ is essentially a modern-day re-telling of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope‘ with a dash of ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ thrown in with a smidge of ‘Return of the Jedi‘. Important plans are hidden inside a droid which winds up on a desert planet and the droid is found by a native who wants to explore the galaxy but has ties to the planet preventing them from doing so. But they’re assisted by an older, wiser hero and have to stop an evil empire with inadequately defined motives (led by a scary guy with personal ties to the heroes who wears a black mask) with the help of a resistance and take down a planet-destroying space-station.
It’s not just the broad-strokes of the story, but even the details are ripped-whole heartedly from the original trilogy. There’s an alien canteena, an armoured soldier who looks badass does absolutely nothing, a human General assisting the dark Jedi, a trench the X-Wings have to go down to destroy a spherical space-station while a small group have to take down the shields etc. The stories are even structured the same way. If you played ‘A New Hope‘ and ‘The Force Awakens‘ side-by-side I can guarantee that Darth Vader and Kylo Ren will appear on-screen within seconds of each other.
The only thing that ‘The Force Awakens‘ really should have taken from ‘A New Hope‘ was a self-contained story. ‘The Force Awakens‘ is FULL of sequel-baiting and lamp-shade hanging. There are no less than a dozen moments in the movie where characters all-but look at the camera and say “This will be important in the sequel”. One Yoda-style character even says “That’s a story for another time” when questioned about how she got ahold of an important object. The power of coincidence is also a more powerful tool in this movie than the force is as the introduction of the Millennium Falcon, Han, Chewbacca, the meeting of several key-characters later on and many plot-points are all able to happen…just because. There’s no sense of logical plot-progression. One or two instances of this are reasonable but when they happen one after the other after the other after the other it begins to rip you out out of this universe and ask too many questions.
However, a lot of this is forgiven because ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ is such an enjoyable and fun adventure movie. It moves at a breakneck pace, the characters are smartly introduced, well-rounded, engaging and the whole cast have great chemistry. The new introductions are a revelation, particularly Daisy Ridley who is a superb find. A London-Born actor who has done very little on-screen work, Ridley gives a brilliant, dramatic performance portraying a well-realised character (mostly) with confidence. Rey is easily the best female character this franchise has ever had and she gets some brilliant moments to shine and hopefully she’ll continue to do so in future.
John Boyega may have seemed like an odd choice for a “Star Wars” movie at first, but he’s a captivating actor from the moment he’s introduced. He undergoes the most interesting arc but that’s mainly because his story feels stand-alone, unlike the rest of the cast who have a “to be continued in sequels” sign hanging obnoxiously over them. The character who suffers the most from that is Poe Dameron and that’s no fault of Oscar Isaac who is terrific, fun, charming and just plain ‘ol heroic but there doesn’t seem to be much to him.
But Kylo Ren easily has the potential to be the best villain this franchise has ever had, possibly supplanting the iconic Darth Vader. Doing inventive manoeuvres with the force, armed with a lightsaber with crossguards and an instantly iconic mask he’s not only an effective threat but Adam Driver absolutely owns the role and is perfect casting. Ren is a villain who has a powerful, intimidating front but that all masks a crippling insecurity. The distorted voice that comes from his mask is scary but distinctly human and emotional. ‘The Force Awakens‘ gives us a great introduction to the character but when it comes to additional depth, we’ll have to wait for sequels.
But when it comes to that depth, it all seems to either be surface or is hinted at through incredible performances and is not attributed to the script. ‘The Force Awakens‘ has the potential to give us rich, nuanced and detailed characters but doesn’t explore them because the movie is in such a rush. Moments that feel like they should be character-defining are brushed aside in order to get to the next sequence, such as Rey’s first steps on a new planet, Rey being given an opportunity to hand over BB-8, the First Order’s “Alderaan” moment or basically every character’s reaction to a game-changing finale. At 135 minutes ‘The Force Awakens‘ had more than enough time to give these characters the moments they deserve. But as it stands right now, the most we get out of Rey is in a sequence where Kylo Ren interrogates her and basically reads off a character-biography that the audience should have SEEN instead of being TOLD. One of Han Solo’s first scenes leads into an action-sequence which is fun but serves no narrative purpose and makes me wonder if that scene cut have been cut out entirely and instead replaced with scenes of these characters being fleshed out.
The movie’s priorities feel skewed in this regard. It would be okay if the movie was a beat-for-beat retread of Episodes 4 and 5 if it was going to use the familiar-franchise framework as an excuse to give us more detailed characters and a richer world but with the movie copying the plot and iconography from the aforementioned films and keeping the key characters at arm’s length from the audience…it’s frustrating and results in a movie that’s almost entirely surface with very few subversions. Yes, ‘A New Hope‘ doesn’t have a complex story either, but that movie was introducing us to an entirely new cast and universe/mythology that was unknown to audiences at the time. This movie doesn’t have that excuse.
As for the rest of the characters, Captain Phasma gets a ton of build-up but literally does nothing, Max von Sydow’s role amounts to a cameo, at best, BB-8 is essentially the new R2-D2 but still leaves an impression as a charismatic, cute and oddly manoeuvrable droid and Domhnall Gleeson is a great secondary villain as General Hux. But the motion-captured characters, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) only seem to be hanging around for sequels.
The old-guard cast are strong with Harrison Ford feeling more like Han Solo here than he felt like Indiana Jones in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘. He feels like the same character but aged 30 years which is a blessing and a curse because while it’s great to see him on top-form again, it feels like the character should have progressed more in that time-span. They do explain why this war-hero has regressed into just being a smuggler but it doesn’t add-up and feels like we’re missing a lot of information in this 30-year gap (including, but not limited to, how the First Order even came into being and just how they managed to get as far as they have without meeting immediate resistance and more). Carrie Fisher, on the other hand, feels like a more world-weary character who has gone through a lot over the past 30 years. While Han is more important to the plot of the movie, Leia is the more interesting character-wise.
And as for Luke Skywalker…that would be telling.
Do not get me wrong, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ is a fun, action-blockbuster. It’s easily the funniest movie since George Lucas’ original movie, it’s never boring and the variety of locales makes this Universe feel as big as we’ve been believing it to be for 40 years. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that J.J. Abrams is either too afraid to differentiate this movie from the originals or just isn’t a talented enough filmmaker to do anything else. The problem is that the depth IS there. Rey, Finn, Kylo and others are characters who are just ACHING to leap off the page and become fully formed and the actors are trying their absolute hardest but J.J. Abrams is in such a rush to hit the check-list of set-pieces from Episodes 4, 5 and 6 that he just doesn’t let these characters breathe. So when the credits do roll on ‘The Force Awakens‘ you want to know what happens next and you want to spend more time with these characters but it means that this movie won’t have much re-watch appeal because it doesn’t feel stand-alone. It lacks its own unique set-pieces and moments that you’d want to re-visit over and over again like its lineage. When this new trilogy comes to an end in 2019 then it’ll be great to watch this movie again as part of the completed story, but as it stands right now, despite having a lot of fun with the movie, I have no inclination to watch it again. There’s just not enough depth and too many loose-ends.
But at least J.J. Abrams is a proven technical director as ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ is easily one of the most ambitious and wide-reaching film productions of the year. Special mention must go to cinematographer Daniel Mindel who worked on the Abrams “Star Trek” movie and his shots are terrific as well as his camerawork. If there’s one aspect of Abrams’ “Star Trek” movies I wanted to see transfer over to “Star Wars” it was his talent for space dog-fighting and he doesn’t disappoint as ‘The Force Awakens‘ gives us the best aerial battles in the series. The action beats are effective, the camera-work is dizzying but with a sense of geography, the conflicts are thrilling and a lightsaber duel at the end is one of the best of the franchise due to high emotional stakes.
The camerawork is also brilliant and ambitious in areas I never expected it to be. One shot has X-Wing fighters swoop in, before panning over to General Hux watching who then turns around to speak to nearby troopers before turning around to face the fighters again, the camera adjusting the focus where appropriate.. It sounds insignificant, but it’s dynamic and it might be one of my favourite shots of the year. Despite a lot of talk being made about ‘The Force Awakens‘ going “back to practical effects” there will be few movies this year with as many CGI shots. But it’s a great combination of the two where they compliment each other and both are prominent. Some of the creatures seen are a sight to behold and are more impressive when you take into account the fact that they were crafted by hand.
The make-up, lighting, location work, stunts etc. are all top-notch as is to be expected. The only letdown of the production is the motion-capture. Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o are the only fully CGI characters in this movie and they stick out like a sore-thumb. They just don’t fit into this newly practical world and despite Andy Serkis’ presence and consultation, the effects just aren’t up to par with films like ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘, ‘Avatar‘ or ‘The Hobbit‘. In fact, looking at the characters the two play, there’s no reason they had to be motion-captured. Make-up would have suited the job perfectly fine. John Williams is also back doing the music and while not much stands out when compared to the original trilogy or “Duel of the Fates” from ‘The Phantom Menace‘ it’s still varied, effective and appropriate for the context.
As a fun, action-packed, science-fiction/fantasy blockbuster with wit, charm and superb production values, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ succeeds and excels. As a launch-pad for a new trilogy of films the movie also succeeds, but that seems to be all it wants to be. The new cast are terrific but they’re being under-served by a sequel-baitey script whose plot is entirely reliant on coincidence. ‘The Force Awakens‘ seems afraid to tread new ground or to explore the apparent depths of these new characters or even give us a plot that isn’t a “greatest hits” compilation from the original trilogy. That depth is clearly being saved for Episode 8 and Episode 9 (to be directed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow respectively) and while it’s an entertaining time at the movies its surface-level script will lack re-watch value and clearly exists to serve future story-points.
It ain’t the prequels. It ain’t the original movies either…but the potential is definitely there. Let’s hope future directors bother to explore it.
I give ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 18th Dec 15