The Force Awakens

The Force AwakensSynopsis: Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing. A Resistance pilot (Oscar Isaac) is given a map to find Luke, and before he’s captured by the First Order, he gives the map to BB-8.

Meanwhile, a scrappy scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) team up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke for General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

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The Force Awakens 8.0

eyelights: Rey. the return of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. the set design. the landscapes.
eyesores: its lack of emotional content. John Williams’ score. Snoke. Captain Phasma. the lackluster closing scene.

“The Force, it’s calling to you. Just let it in.”

I approached the new ‘Star Wars’ film, “the Force Awakens’, with caution. Having been largely disappointed by the prequels and being disillusioned with ‘Star Wars’ in general since the release of the Special Editions in 1997, I felt that the odds were that I would be disappointed with any new installment in the long-running franchise.

I was heartened by the fact that George Lucas was out of the picture and that director J.J. Abrams had basically been doing a practice run for ‘Star Wars’ with his new ‘Star Trek‘ movies. He had done well on that front; they weren’t ‘Star Trek’ films proper, but they were well done. And Disney had done a good job with Marvel.

Maybe the new ‘Star Wars’ films would be good too.

So I planned on seeing ‘The Force Awakens’ eventually. But I was in no hurry; it would be after the madness died down, so I wouldn’t have to fight my way through throngs to see it. Then I decided that I was going to do three weeks of ‘Star Wars’ for TCE, and the die was cast: I might as well see it soon and toss this one in.

The big problem: avoiding spoilers. With all the excitement building up, ‘The Force Awakens’ was being referred to everywhere, in all online sources. And the marketing machine was revved up to full speed; you could barely avoid ‘Star Wars’. Still, I managed to stick to the teaser and the first trailer, after which I tuned out.

I was cautious after that. I’d seen BB-8, which smacked of gimmicky kiddies crap, and the lightsaber with a crossguard on it, another gimmick to awe those who liked Darth Maul’s double-bladed saber, Count Dooku’s weird handle, General Grievous four-bladed attack, …etc. But a laser crossguard is a stupid notion, so I was skeptical.

The thing that really helped was reading a spoiler-free interview with Abrams wherein he explained his take on the Force and the prequels, showing that he had a similar take on the series as I did. After that, I figured that there was a chance that this might turn out okay. And when the first few reviews came in, I felt pretty optimistic.

It might not be too bad, after all. But I wasn’t exactly excited.

This would prove to be my overarching impression of the new film.

NOTA BENE: BEWARE OF SPOILERS

The missing fanfare: The FOX fanfare is so closely tied to the “Star Wars Theme” that it felt strange to not have anything before the theme played. I almost wish that Disney had gotten John Williams to write a little piece of music for the Lucasfilm logo to fill the void. That moment felt unbalanced.

The plot: I completely like the story, which seems absolutely fitting some 30 years later. I even liked the opening crawl, which wholly set the stage, leaving no questions unanswered. It’s all very reminiscent of ‘Star Wars‘ itself, maybe too much so, but there are worst things than ripping off the original.

First impression: ‘The Force Awakens’ didn’t feel like a ‘Star Wars’ film to me. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem is. The characters had a ‘Star Wars’ flavour to them, but they weren’t quite it. Mostly, though, it felt like a war movie with a ‘Star Wars’ theme to me. I’m not sure how to explain it.

The new characters

Rey: Although she seems kind of bland and low-key at first, I liked her fire, grit, skill and intelligence. This is a strong character, and Daisy Ridley embodied her perfectly. I can’t wait to see the character’s evolution. I pray that she doesn’t get watered down to nothing like previous ‘Star Wars’ heroines. She should be one to watch; she’s a terrific lead for the new series.

Finn: My first impression, in the trailer, was of annoyance. But it was a decent character; I especially liked that he was a deserter (although I wish it wasn’t after just one mission – instead that he’d see much and grown to dislike the First Order to the extent that he no longer could stay). In the end, I was slightly indifferent about him, even though John Boyega was excellent.

BB-8: My first impression, in the trailer, was of disgust. They were obviously catering to the kiddies with this ball droid, a new take on R2-D2. Turns out that the droid fit in quite well.

Poe Dameron: I hated this character, the supposed greatest pilot in the galaxy, from the onset. It was something about Oscar Isaac’s performance that I disliked so. But he was out of the way quickly, which was good, and I actually liked him at the end.

Kylo Ren: Or Han jr., as I’ve started to  all him. He was okay with his mask on, even if he was a bit too reminiscent of Darth Vader, down to the weird voice. I wasn’t that keen on him without the mask on, and felt that he was revealed too early. That should have waited until his confrontation with Han at the end.

But I guess the actor had to be seen (it was probably a contractual obligation). And don’t get me started on his lightsaber. A laser crossguard is stupid because he’d wind up cutting himself and other things accidentally all the time. It was gimmicky, not realistic, and I hate that.

Captain Phasma: It’s a silly name, in the ‘Star Wars’ vibe of General Grievous, Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, …etc. Except that the character does nothing but walk around stiffly with a gun. She is so meaningless that, while the name should inspire something, the character isn’t up to it. Heck, she’s only a Captain, anyway. And Captain Phasma sound like something out of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon.

Oh, right…

Snoke: WTF. Is this supposed to be ‘Lord of the Rings’? What a silly fantasy name for a villain. Basically, it’s a CGI rendition of Emperor Palpatine, except bigger. Much like the Starkiller Base is the Death Star but bigger. Bigger is always more dangerous, right? I’d love it if, despite the imposing size of the hologram, Scope were actually really small, sort of in a ‘The Wizard of OZ’ moment. Ha!

The old characters

Han: He’s old, scraggly and struggling, but Ford continued the character in the same vein as ‘RTOJ’, instead of returning to ‘Star Wars’. Not a tour de force, but good. And a welcome sight.

Leia: Happy to see that she gets a meaty part again, being a General now. But Carrie Fisher was utterly inexpressive; her face barely moved even in emotional moments. What was up with that?

Luke: F- you! I wanted to see Luke more than anything, and we got fifteen seconds – with no dialogue. But at least we’re sure he’ll be a more significant figure in the next one. No doubt Disney wanted to ensure we’d return for the second film. Ahem.

Chewie: Not a twit this time. Finally. And Peter Mayhew was excellent.

C-3PO: A small dose is perfectly fine by me. He was never my favourite character.

R2-D2: He’s barely in the picture, but we have BB-8 instead. It was a bit convenient that he was in “silent mode” for decades and suddenly, for no real reason, woke up. Coincidence, much?

Darth Vader: Looking good, all melty and silent. Of course he had to be in this, even after death.

Lando: Snap. Even dead Vader gets a cameo. But not Lando. That’s gotta hurt.

My second impression: My impression changed slightly when Han and Chewie finally appeared on screen, but it only barely shook that sensation that what I was watching was akin to a sheep in wolf’s clothing. I don’t know if it’s the look of the film, the tone, or even the score, but I not once really got excited like I do with ‘Star Wars’ – even the prequels.

The emotional content: Sadly, this is where the picture dropped the ball. The only time I felt anything was when Han and Leia were reunited, and only because I’d seen the original films; neither the performances nor the scenes truly tapped into the raw emotion that should have risen then. I felt something, but only via surrogate sentiment.

Part of the issue is the pace, which was fine overall, but which didn’t allow emotional moments to really stir the audience. I wasn’t alone: hardly anyone in the cinema reacted throughout; there weren’t the laughs, the cheers, the gasps you’d expect from a ‘Star Wars’ film. People were clearly pleased, but not moved in any significant way.

Another issue is that we didn’t spend enough time with the characters to care about their inner travails. Finn’s dilemma and decision is a big deal, but it’s not wrenching because we’ve only just met him. Rey’s got some abandonment issues, but that’s hardly explored and we don’t understand its impact. As for Han jr, his struggles feel false or muddled.

But there was potential there. And maybe future films will explore the characters’ inner lives more. Or at least flesh them out.

The music: The music didn’t help. Listen to the score to ‘Star Wars’. It’s resplendent with emotion and energy; the film would have been significantly weaker without it. This score merely fills the background, at no point taking the film well beyond its scope. It’s disappointing since the music was originally as evocative as the images.

The vistas: ‘The Force Awakens’ is a gorgeous film. The locations and landscapes are breathtaking. And I rather loved the sight of the Star Destroyers’ and Tie Fighters’ remains, leftovers of previous battles/wars. This was realistic and impressive; it really cemented the notion that there had been massive conflicts for years.

The set designs: Superb. At no point did I feel like I was watching CGI sets, even when it’s clear that CGI was involved. For the most part they filmed on location and on real sets. And it makes a difference: the picture looks real, the settings are tangible. This is the most significant change from the prequels, and a much welcome one.

The CGI: While the CGI characters stood out like sore thumbs, they were used in moderation – there were a lot more costumed actors than CGI characters. This helped to make the film seem more real. The prequels failed because at no point could we believe it was happening. Not so here. For the most part, ‘The Force Awakens’ looks real.

The action sequences: While there was a lot of it, for some reason I didn’t feel over-saturated with the action. And I felt that all of it was well-choreographed. The only significant doubt I had was when Rey releases the creatures in Han’s ship because the creatures were clearly CGI and it was doubtful anyone would escape them.

The other somewhat questionable one is the lightsaber battle at the end (thankfully there was only the one!), wherein both Finn and Rey each held their own against Kylo Ren, who mastered the weapon years ago. I can buy that Rey has an innate ability, but she shouldn’t have nearly outdone Kylo. As for Finn, there’s no way he should even manage.

Greatest Hits Remixed: I saw a review whose title suggested that the new movie is essentially a greatest hits remix of the original films, and (although I haven’t read the review itself, to avoid spoilers) I believe that this is a totally fair assessment of the situation. There’s very little that’s new here or original.

Droid gets implanted with crucial data. Déjà vu: Opening of ‘Star Wars’.

Initial mission. Déjà vu: ‘Star Wars’

BB-8. Déjà vu: R2-D2

First Order. Déjà vu: The Empire.

Stormtrooper assault. Déjà vu: countless times, but less slick and stocky.

Kylo Ren. Déjà vu: Darth Vader.

Snoke. Déjà vu: The Emperor, with less CGI.

Family ties between good and evil. Déjà vu: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’/’Return of the Jedi’

Cantina scene. Déjà vu: ‘Star Wars’/’Return of the Jedi’.

Rey’s Force-inspired vision. Déjà vu: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Maz Kanata, the aged sage. Déjà vu: Yoda.

Third act delivery of crucial data to the Resistance. Déjà vu: ‘Star Wars’/’Return of the Jedi’.

Star Killer. Déjà vu: Death Star

End battle. Déjà vu: ‘Star Wars’/’Return of the Jedi’.

Lightsaber duel. Déjà vu: all films.

Closing scene: That final scene is a total fail. We know it’s Luke, since Rey’s been looking for him. And we know what he’ll look like because of the promotion. So showing him standing immobile for a long time, with his back turned, was a poor choice. It lacks suspense and it’s awkward.

We should have seen him on the edge of the cliff, at a distance, but too small to be perceptible, and he should have greeted her, knowing her name and having been expecting her. This would have given us a “wow moment’ in that we’d know that Luke is still an extremely powerful Jedi.

Now he just looks at us and that’s it. Whoopteedo.

‘The Force Awakens’ is solid throughout, but there were no highs or any excitement like in the previous films. Mind you, there were no massive lows either. To me, it felt like another movie passing itself off as ‘Star Wars’ – until the familiar characters showed up. And even then, I wasn’t fully engaged in the way I’ve been with even the weakest prequel.

I will see it again, though. In fact, I was game enough to go right back in, had my buddy been up to it. I would have liked to see it with all my concerns cast aside. And I will. I suspect that ‘The Force Awakens’ might even be a grower for me. It will likely never outdo the originals, but I just might get into it more with time.

Especially after the other two films come out and the emotional ties are finally made.

Assuming that they will be that is.

Date of viewing: December 19, 2015

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5 responses to “The Force Awakens

  1. For the most part, my feelings are right up there with yours except for my thoughts on the final lightsaber duel between Kylo and Rey. My take was that it was supposed to show that Kylo hadn’t yet mastered his weapon, or his understanding of the dark side. Sure, he’s more proficient than Rey, but he doesn’t understand the internalization of anger and hate required. He relies on pain and lashes out for strength, making the broadsword-style saber more fitting to his unpolished, battering based fighting style.

    I think it’s been shown throughout the series that rage can in fact give a Jedi some kind of brief edge, but in the long run the ability to keep your cool is always the smarter choice. I thought JJ did a good job of making it apparent that Kylo is strong, but yet unpolished.

    I hope they don’t keep relying on bigger and bigger Death Stars in the next movies, but from what I saw, this film was essentially meant to set up the new trilogy. I trust that now that some of the big threads have been cleaned up, JJ will be able to move a little more freely in terms of what he can set up for the First Order in the next movies.

    I need to see it again, but at this point, I very much agree with a lot of your feelings. Good review.

    • My impression was that Han jr. was wounded, and maybe this was why he wasn’t up to snuff. But maybe you’re right. Problem is that it isn’t clear at all, so it leaves some doubt and prevents some of us from fully immersing ourselves in the experience.

      Either way, Finn shouldn’t have held his own for more than a second.

      As for the crossguard, I think having a flaming blade was enough of a cool gimmick. I would have been impressed with that, if not for the unnecessary crossguard distracting me.

      As for the Death Star, for the next one I think they should have a Death Cube. You know, to make it different. 😛

      • Yeah, iirc Kylo was injured before hand and that’s why he kept punching his wound. I agree that Finn holding his own was a little off, but I think it was done for the sake of showing just how unpolished the new cast is.

        Definitely trying to see some kind of enormous Death Pyramid in the next one. Maybe they’re going to bust out the Sun Crusher, just to really go overboard with the unbeatable weapons. I’m really excited to see it again so I can really focus on the minutia. Hopefully you’ll be able to check out my review after that.

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