STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)
(Directed by J.J. Abrams)
(Written by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and J.J. Abrams)
(Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Harrison Ford)
Plot: A scavenger (Daisey Ridley), a reformed Storm Trooper (John Boyega) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) protect an android called BB-8, who knows the location of the only person who can bring peace to the Galaxy- Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But a sinister regime known as the First Order are hunting them in order to find and slay Luke, ensuring their status as the new Galactic Empire.
The Star Wars fandom was completely divided when they learned that Disney had acquired the rights to the franchise and planned on making more movies, although I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it became apparent that George Lucas would not be involved. Now I have always given the man respect, as he is the Father of Star Wars, but there reached a point when it felt like he had become less interested in telling a story and more interested in selling toys. What began as a passion project was corrupted by the dark side of merchandising, which hurt “Return of the Jedi” and mortally wounded the prequel trilogy. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the hiring of J.J. Abrams, even though I’ve enjoyed his entire filmography. I’m not completely sure why this concerned me, but maybe I simply felt that the choice was too predictable? Plus, his movies are more ‘good’ than ‘great’ and I REALLY wanted “The Force Awakens” to be great. Nevertheless, I was won over by the awesome marketing campaign and soon I was counting the minutes until I could finally sit in the IMAX theater. The primary trailer in particular was breathtaking, using nostalgia so masterfully that my feelings almost went full circle and I became concerned that the movie would rely too much on reminding us of the original trilogy. So now that we are here…was it worth the hype?
Yes…and a little bit of no…
“The Force Awakens” is a very entertaining space adventure flick, boasting stunning visuals and endearing characters, while finding a solid balance of exploiting nostalgia and paving its own path. There are flaws and I’m not entirely sure how cancerous they will be in the long run, but I did have a good time and that is what matters in a Star Wars movie. Despite having a running time over 2 hours long, “The Force Awakens” moves at a brisk pace without running out of stamina. There is always an action scene flying around every corner, but the spectacle is seamlessly mixed in with character development and humorous banter. The special effects are about as excellent as I had hoped they would be, with the emphasis being on practical effects and fantastic sets- much like the Star Wars of old. Unfortunately, much like the prequels, the CGI additions tend to standout. The CGI on display is (currently) good, so it never took me out of the movie, but remember when “The Phantom Menace” was praised for its CGI? Nevertheless, “The Force Awakens” continuously mesmerized me with creatively designed aliens, costumes, weapons, androids, planets and everything, while also having the skill and money required to bring them to life and make them convincing. The action scenes are awesome, whether it’s through the exciting aerial dog fights or the intense light saber duels. The cinematography, editing and music drew me in and I found myself experiencing the battles instead of analyzing them. The ‘sword fights’ were nicely choreographed, but not the extent of resembling a dance. There was emotional content in every strike and parry, perhaps even moreso than what we got in the original trilogy! Sometimes, I felt like the atmosphere was lacking, primarily because there is just…too much material? There is a sense of urgency about the narrative, so there isn’t a whole lot of time to get a good feel of this films’ universe. It’s strange, as I found the overarching pacing to be perfect, but individual scenes sometimes moved a little too quickly. My mind wasn’t able to process everything, although I didn’t find the spectacle to be too chaotic. One of the many problems with the prequels is that so many special effects are crammed into single shots and everything is happening so quickly that the score or visuals weren’t able to resonate with me. “Star Wars“, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” somehow made every piece of music, set and action stand out, which is why they are so iconic. The pacing makes sure that you catch every detail. “The Force Awakens” lacks that memorability factor, probably because it’s in too much of a hurry to allow these attributes to settle in. But they still manage to impress and engage while you’re watching it, whereas “Attack of the Clones” only made me cringe and groan while I was watching that. With all of this said, it should be noted that I saw the original trilogy when I was a kid, and the experiences of cinema within ones youth often defines their preferences and tastes as an adult. I’ve always felt that my generation built the original Lucas films into the classics that they are ‘now’, as we grew up with them. Maybe “The Force Awakens” will have a similar impact on kids today, so this is all speculative.
One thing I was very pleased with was the character writing. If Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford) had all of their traits deconstructed and reassembled, the result would be Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley)- our new protagonists. This could’ve easily turned into a flaw, but the mixing of characterizations was so thorough and they add just enough that they seem more original than they really are. Much like Luke, Rey has dreams about exploring the Universe and I was impressed by how this was conveyed using imagery instead of dialogue. Sometimes lounging around and wearing an old Rebel Helmet tells the audience just as much as the character explaining his desires in detail. I thought the characters had strong, firmly defined arcs and I bought their development over the course of the film. My only concern is that it sort of felt like their development was complete by the end of this movie, making me wonder how they will continue to grow in the sequels. Luke was more mature by the conclusion of the original “Star Wars“, but the emphasis is on ‘more’ and his character journey wasn’t complete until “Return of the Jedi” (if even that!). Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching them and their interactions with each-other were a lot of fun. The banter was clever and their comedic timing worked for me. The acting was really good and I liked how nervous they were whenever they found themselves in peril (in contrast to the prequels, where the cast looked bored and expressed little emotion in general). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will be a polarizing character, as he’s not Darth Vader, even though he wants to be. He’s more like young Anakin in that he’s torn between the dark and the light, but I found his development to be more compelling and believable. I liked that they made an actual character out of the villain instead of just using him as a living prop (which even Vader was in his debut). But some viewers won’t be able to take him seriously. I did feel the ‘laser crossguard’ on the light saber was unnecessary, because not much attention is paid to it. When Darth Maul unleashed his double bladed saber, the sound design and camerawork made a big deal out of his gimmick. The trailers for “The Force Awakens” made a bigger deal of the cross-guard than the actual movie did. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is a blast, even if his screentime is limited (loved his chemistry with Finn) and the majority of the other supporting characters aren’t around much, but might become more pronounced in subsequent installments. I liked their appearances and hints of characterizations though, so I hope to see more of them! General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) sucked, primarily because his characterization is even blander than Tarkin’s, but he’s also not played by the great Peter Cushing. Gleeson’s mannerisms were bizarre and I found his Hitler-esque speech laughable, not helped by the overdone Nazi imagery accompanying his big scene. As for the old crew, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is one of the main characters and he’s just an endearing as he always was. Some of his dialogue didn’t work for me, but he also has the funniest moments. I find it strange that Ford has badmouthed the character for so long when Han Solo seems to give the actor more to do than the majority of his other roles. They somehow managed to bring back the Solo charm, while making sure that his quirks and lines are believable for a man his age. Luke (Mark Hamill) barely has a cameo and while I liked how Leia (Carrie Fisher) was used within the story, I thought Fisher’s acting was awkward. At times, I was wondering if she had plastic surgery done, as her face seemed unnaturally stiff in parts (maybe I’m wrong). I still squeed during her interactions with Ford though!
“The Force Awakens” is not fueled exclusively by nostalgia, unlike recent reboot/sequels such as “Jurassic World“, “Spectre” and “Terminator: Genysis“, although I do think its impact was lessened from relying too much on past plot points. For example, the Star Killer weapon is a lot like the Death Star and I didn’t feel that it was necessary. Unlike the giant computer base from “The Phantom Menace“, at least it’s built up to be a threat prior to the climax, but the narrative was focused more on everyone trying to find Luke. In “Star Wars“, the death star was responsible for everything that occurred within the movie, so its destruction was a fitting climax. In “The Force Awakens“, the search for Luke is what kicks off the plot, so his discovery is a fitting climax. The final battle should’ve surrounded that event, not a superfluous weapon of destruction. I did find myself enjoying the fanservice though, particularly when past characters would be introduced. When Han and Chewbacca stepped into frame, I got giddy and C-3PO’s arrival was fitting and hilarious at once. At least the content isn’t based around constantly reminding us of the past films and “The Force Awakens” provides plenty of new memories, even if I’m not sure they will stick. My favorite is when the force is used to stop a laser beam, holding it in place. There are many, many cool moments like that. The tone was mostly fitting and strangely, I did not mind when some comical antics occur right after a village is massacred. Looking back, I raise an eyebrow when thinking about it, but I wasn’t taken out of the situation during my viewing experience. I did think that there was too much tragedy during the climax though, with one devastating moment losing some of its power by being overtaken by another devastating moment. In my eyes, one of them should’ve occurred during Episode 8, especially as middle entries in trilogies usually end on the darkest notes. Nevertheless, these scenes were still emotionally gripping and the lighting was fittingly moody. J.J’s direction in general was energetic and flashy, resurrecting but updating the classic style of the original trilogy. He also seems to have a fondness for Storm Troopers, as a lot of time is spent reminding us that these guys are people. Besides Finn being both a storm trooper and protagonist, some pathos is given to a death of his unnamed comrade and another one angrily attacks him for being a traitor. These were nice touches that added a bit more depth to the story.
Is “The Force Awakens” on par with the original trilogy? I doubt it and I think it’s foolish to make such a claim because we often forget that “The Empire Strikes Back” did not have the warmest of receptions when it was first released, only developing it’s ‘best of the trilogy’ reputation years later. In fact, “Return of the Jedi” was initially praised as a step up, whereas now people regard it as the weakest of the (original) trilogy. Maybe 10 years from now, people will laud this as the best entry in the franchise, or perhaps it will be considered more on par with “Revenge of the Sith“- which was also embraced when it was first released, but now has split the fandom. I personally believe that over time, it will have a middle ground reputation. It won’t be as beloved as Trilogy #1, but it won’t be despised like Trilogy #2. I’d be surprised if “The Force Awakens” became a cultural phenomenon, but it has helped sooth the wounds left by the prequels. For now, I have no problem riding the bandwagon of love for this entry as I did think it was pretty good. I can’t wait for the sequel!
Overall: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was a lot of fun, even though I don’t believe we have a classic on our hands.