Reviews

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Movie Review – Do, Or Do Not. There Is No Try

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I debated even writing this review, debated whether it was worth adding my own small voice to the thousands of others talking about this momentous time, the arrival of a new Star Wars movie after so many years of waiting. I debated whether it was writing it so quickly because of what happened with The Phantom Menace; people watched it and entered some sort of strange period of denial where they were adamant that it was fantastic. Even critics defended the movie at the time. And then as the days, weeks, months and even years passed fans came to the realisation that it just wasn’t just a bad Star Wars movie, but a bad movie in general. The prequels aren’t terrible, as some might say, but they’re far from good, either. I didn’t want to become a victim of this and write some glowing review that I would go on to regret mere weeks later. I’ve always attempted to maintain a level head regarding games, movies and books. I’ve always attempted to stop the hype from affecting my judgement. I went in to the Force Awakens with no expectations, but….it’s Star Wars. I can’t turn that off.

So here we are, with my opinion of a film that comes some thirty years after the original, and twenty years after the prequels. What do you do with that? What sort of expectations are truly fair? To my way of thinking J.J. Abrhams must have a mental breakdown somewhere when trying to craft this. It needs to feel true to the original trilogy, but at the same time it needs to be its own movie. It needs to be Star Wars, but it needs to be different, too, for a new generation with new values and new morals. It could never truly live up to the hype. That would be impossible. So, what is it? The answer is that it’s a great Star Wars film, and a great movie in its own right. It’s far from flawless and it doesn’t match the unmatchable hype, but by god is it fun from start to finish.

Without fear of spoilers, then, let’s try t tackle this one bit at a time.

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We start where we should; J.J. Abrams and John Williams. This movie is nothing short of beautiful, Abrams lavishing us with wide, panoramic shots that take in the scope of the environments and of the huge battles that periodically light up the screen. There’s no absurd fast cuts here that obscure the action, rather you’re free to enjoy every blaster shot, every dogfight and every swing of a lightsaber in glorious detail. And what detail is to behold; Abrams composes some stunning shots with masterful lighting. Numerous scenes stand out to me, but the forest fight glimpsed in the trailer stays in my mind, the lightsabers making the snow glow and glisten. Just lovely. Through it all John Williams blends the old and new to create yet another astonishing score that frequently had shivers running down my spine. Part of this was nostalgia; the classic Star Wars sounds are proudly running through the entire film, from the music to the iconic noise of a Tie Fighter hurtling through the skies. It’s like being punched in the nostalgia.

The decision to use practical effects where possible was a smart one, as the movie just looks better for it. CGI is used to enhance the scenes rather than dominate them, although it does make the few pure CGI characters stand out.  Real locations simply give the film a more grounded, relatable tone, something that was missing from the prequels where George Lucas seemingly went crazy with CGI, which is sort of understandable when attempting to bring your imagination into the big screen, but was still ultimately a poor choice.

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley take on the roles of main characters Finn and Rey respectively, and are simply nothing short of a delight. Boyega brings amazing energy to the role, even when he’s decked out in Stormtrooper armor that hides his face in the opening minutes, while Ridley manages to be charming, strong, vulnerable and engaging in every scene she is in. Both of them are truly impressive, delivering some of the best performance of the year, and doubly so when together as their chemistry is rock-solid. They bring heart to the film, not that it’s lacking in that department. You want to root for them. Hell, there’s not a bad performance to be found here; Harrison Ford plays Han Solo yet again, but importantly his character has changed. It’s thirty years after the events of the first trilogy, both in real life and in the Star Wars universe, and  Abrhams wisely ensured that Solo feels like he’s lived those thirty years, coming out of them wiser and maturer, but with that classic edge that made us all fall in love with the character. He also plays a bigger role than expected, yet never overshadows the new cast, exactly as it should be. Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia and has considerably less screen time than Han Solo, but makes the most of it. Her scenes with Ford carry an immense weight, allowing us as an audience to be reminded of how we’ve shared in their past adventures and of how they’ve been living a life without us.

This brings us to Kylo Ren, the new masked villain that I was worried would only be there to replace Darth Vader, a foolish and impossible task. Yes, he wears a mask and can cut an imposing figure despite his lanky frame, but he’s far more human than expected, Adam Driver bringing plenty of personality to the screen even when his face is covered. You can’t quite feel sympathy for him yet as his backstory requires fleshing out for that to happen, but the foundations have been laid for something interesting in the forthcoming movies. The best villains are those that you can understand, even if you don’t condone their actions, and Ren is certainly heading in the direction of being an understandable villain. I can’t wait to find out exactly what happened to him, and what will happen to him.  At the moment he doesn’t manage to strike fear into the hearts of the audience quite as he should, but as I said it’s clear that his character has quite a ways to go yet.

Being a Star Wars movie a lightsaber battle was all but inevitable, so I was happy to see that Abams chose to have a single fight. Yes, the lightsaber does appear and get used a few times throughout the second half or so, but nowhere near the same degree as the prequel trilogy which had its Jedi and sith whipping out their weapons at the slightest provocation. The Force Awakens strikes a lovely balance between the overly choreographed, emotionally lacking but visually spectacular duels of the prequels and the more raw, charged battles of the original trilogy. The duel we get here is slightly slicker than any seen in Luke Skywalker’s day, but still feels natural and powerful and dangerous. It’s a great sequence, easily one of the finest duels the franchise has ever seen.

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There’s more humour laced through the script than we’ve seen before. The prequels attempted to inject more laughs into the Star Wars universe but largely failed to land most of its gags, mostly because it tried to go the slapstick route with Jar Jar, and the originals had their moments but tended to keep everything quite serious. The Force Awakens gets the best of both worlds, aiming for more jokes, most of which land perfectly, making the movie as a whole feel more relatable. We also get the adorable, fun sidekick that Jar Jar was supposed to be in the form of the new BB-8 rolling droid who almost comes across as a puppy, easily slotting in alongside the returning C3po and R2-D2. Abrams keeps the droid’s screen time minimal, too, which is smart.

But there are, of course, some flaws to talk about. We start with Poe Dameron, the ace pilot that helps kick the film off played by Oscar Isaac . He brings incredible charisma to the movie, creating a character that’s confident in his abilities but never cocky, and so its disappointing to see his character get so little screentime. The same can be said of Captain Phasma, the chromed Stormtrooper that gained so much notoriety in the trailer, played by Gwendoline Christie, the very same woman who gave us Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. She’s such a visually striking character that most assumed would become the Boba Fett of The Force Awakens, but sadly she barely gets any lines and the potential creation of a new, silent badass gets crushed in just one brief scene, unless something more is done with her in future movies. I suppose in this regard Phasma does almost resemble Boba Fett by entering the movies, capturing our interest and then getting unceremoniously treated.

The film moves at a fast pace, weaving through set-piece after set-piece with remarkable ease, making the fact that its easy to connect with each character so much more impressive. It’s almost perfectly judged, never giving the audience a boring moment. Finn and Ray both get satisfying narrative arcs despite the constant movement, coming out of the film with a satisfying sense of change, but this speed does come with its pitfalls. Two important scenes strike me as just needing more time given over to them, and instead they came across as rushed, losing some of the emotional impact from an important reveal and damaging the aftermath of an otherwise shocking moment. One could certainly argue that the film needed to slow down here and there for some further character development, too, but personally aside from the two scenes I mentioned the pacing felt wonderful.

It’s hard to talk about The Force Awakens without touching on Luke Skywalker, who has been famously kept out of the trailers except for a brief scene showing him touching R2-D2 and a small voiceover. Without spoiling anything he does play an important part in the story, but acts more as a McGuffin than anything else. This brings us around to actually talking about the plot itself, which I’m going to keep vague, but if you don’t want to know even the rough outline then skip to the next paragraph. In the intervening thirty years between A New Hope and The Force Awakens a new power has risen from the ashes of the Empire, known as the First Order. Opposing them are the Resistance, which is of course the Rebels in all but name. During this timeframe Luke Skywalker has simply vanished following a series of events , and the First Order would like nothing else than to wipe him from existence to ensure that the last of the Jedi order has been destroyed and thus will not return. Having abandoned his position as a Stormtrooper in the First Order Finn encounters ace-pilot Poe who has managed to secure a map to Skywalker’s location that he must return to the Resistance. Finn then, of course, runs into Rey as well on the desert planet of Jakku, with both of them taking on the mission to get the map to the Resistance.

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It’s a simple plot, keeping the tradition of the original trilogy by never becoming weighed down by complexity and instead focusing on the good guys fighting the bad guys. It’s a case of the Resistance versus the First Order with the exploits of the heroes keeping us entertained all the way. However, it can frequently feel like that in his quest to pay homage to the original movies J.J. Abrams goes too far, giving us a script that borrows so heavily in areas that deja vu is a genuine threat The smaller nods and references are handled well, such as the accidental activation of a certain chessboard by Finn aboard the Millenium Falcon, but having the Empire fighting the Rebellion in all but name, yet another Death Star style weapon and a masked villain feel  like rehashes rather than tributes. Likewise there’s a major sequence toward the movie’s finale that is clearly meant to be a fitting homage but ultimately comes across just too much like it was lifted straight from A New Hope. You’ll know it when you see it. Sometimes the film goes from trying to hold a mirror up to the original trilogy, to trying to be the original trilogy. It’s the same mistake Abrams made with Star Trek: Into Darkness and its frustrating to see him do it again. This new trilogy needs to remain true to the franchise, but at the same time must create an identity of its own as well.

Of course, I can see why this was done. With the likes of Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia and even Luke returning to join a new cast of heroes perhaps the intent was to make the first of the new trilogy feel very familiar to fans of the original trilogy before fading out the old guard in favor of the new characters and diverging from previous plots for the next two films. I hope that’s the case, because if so this first movie’s parallels to Star Wars: A New Hope will make a lot more sense. If not, then it really is a problem.

Some people will come out of the cinema feeling angered by the cliffhanger ending designed to set up for the rest of the trilogy, but it’s a well deserved finale. I’ve said before that my opinion is a good cliffhanger needs to be earned by a story that feels satisfying in own right before leaving viewers (or readers or players) with questions, and The Force Awakens manages this wonderfully. The Empire Strikes Back did this as well way back in 1980 as well, but for kids like me there was no true cliffhanger as we could simply stick in the next VHS and watch Return of the Jedi play out, whereas those who ventured into the cinema had to wait a few years to see the conclusion. The ending left me wanting more, it left me wanting episode VIII to start straight away because I was so immersed into what I was seeing.

And that’s really what matters. As brilliant as they were the original trilogy was flawed, and The Force Awakens is much the same. It has some problems, including some other snaller nitpicks that aren’t worth talking about in-depth but do exist, and yet I was wholly enthralled from start to finish, staring at the screen with wide-eyed, childlike glee. I don’t mind admitting that there were quite a few moments where I was leaning forward in my seat, simply enraptured by the action on-screen, completely immersed in the dogfights, into the lighsaber fight and into the adventure of Finn and Rey. They were even a few moments that brought a tear to my eye, be it the combination of visuals and John Williams score or witness characters from my childhood interacting with great new  heroes to root for. Yes, part of this love for Abrams rebirth of the franchise is nostalgia, but I do also believe that The Force Awakens is a great movie in its own right that succeeds in feeling like a Star Wars film while still retaining a tonal style all of its own, even when its a little too busy trying to replicate A New Hope. It’s outstandingly directed with lush visuals, superb characters, good pacing, tremendous action sequences and solid writing. Is it some movie masterpiece? No. Is it a damn fun movie? Yup. Is it a worthy Star Wars film? Absolutely.

Congratulations, J.J. Abrams, you did it. You’ve given something precious back to me, something that I’ve loved and has been an integral part of life for as long as I can remember. It’s absurd to think that a series of movies can mean so much, or become so ingrained in culture, and yet they did. Everybody knows who Darth Vader is. Everybody knows about Luke Skywalker, and the Deathstar, and Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon. And now everyone is going to know about Finn and Rey and Kylo Ren. There’s going to be a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, and that makes me happy.

This movie makes me happy. I’m happy that it exists, that Star Wars got to continue after the iffy prequels. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with a movie all year, and has reinforced my love for Star Wars. Thank you, Star Wars, for just being you. For being there. Thank you.

And may the Force be with you.

Reco

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