Every Generation Has A Story
Regular readers will know that my reviews tend to be analytical breakdowns intended to be read after watching the release. The Force Awakens is a prime example of required viewing before reading this review. To be blunt, I’m going to talk about every aspect of this film so if you haven’t seen it, the story will be absolutely ruined for you. Clear? Good. With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s commence a very long, very one-way discussion.
Set some thirty years after the close of Return Of The Jedi, the universe is still struggling with the presence of the evil Empire; this time in the form of its ruthless off-shoot, The First Order. The original cast have gone their separate ways and the Rebels are now the Resistance and the force and the Jedi have slipped into obscurity and legend. On the desert planet Jakku, suave Resistance pilot Poe Dameron [Isaac] and his droid BB-8 have finally found a clue to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker [Hamill], who disappeared into self-imposed exile years ago. Before Poe can return to the Resistance, he is set upon by the First Order’s key henchman, force-user Kylo Ren [Driver] but not before BB-8 escapes with the map. At the same time we’re introduced to Stormtrooper FN-2187 (later dubbed Finn) [Boyega] who isn’t cut out for the brutal nature of his conscription and aids Poe in his escape. Back on Jakku, lone scavenger Rey [Ridley] scratches out a meagre existence and barely survives by selling parts from wreckages of spaceships; the work is gruelling and the reward minimal. During his escape, Finn runs into Rey and both take to the stars to meet up with the Resistance. And a whole mess of other stuff happens which I won’t even start to get into here.
2009’s revitalisation of Star Trek by Abrams was admittedly brilliant, it breathed fresh life into a frankly hopeless cause and reminded audience worldwide how cool Star Trek could be. Except it didn’t. It took the material that worked and ditched a huge amount in favour of basically making it Star Wars, which pissed off a lot of devout Trek fans. But it undeniably worked and managed to make a fun, engaging, blockbuster franchise out of a lifeless corpse (in the same way Quentin Tarantino revives careers of people like John Travolta). In essence, he’s done the exact same thing here. He took what wasn’t working, analysed the blueprint of what failed and why then produced something the fans wanted. In the industry it’s called “fan service” and while it’s cheap, it’s also sometimes really effective. Littered throughout this two hour beast are so many subtle nods, props, characters and phrases which immediately reignite a passion in those who buried it so deep for so long. Leaving the cinema, while people may feel an internal conflict (*insert a “there is no conflict” gag here*) 95% of the audience will be reminded why Star Wars is such a big part of cinema and people’s lives. But it’s not perfect. It’s not a life-altering experience and for some people, the fact this is a really good film might not be enough. So first, the gushing praise then we’ll get onto the unspooling complaints.
I don’t know the exact number but after you’ve seen a specific amount of films you become savvy to the formulas. Every genre has differing rules but the overall combination remains the same. Base writers will employ these mercilessly making a bad movie boring, successful writers will utilise them well but you can still read the signs and exceptional writers will play up to expectations then turn the formula on its head. The Force Awakens is the middle ground but thankfully adheres to the formula without feeling formulaic. This is how I knew Han Solo would die. The amount of screen-time given to Solo and watching him seemingly make peace with everyone as well as being the guide for the new characters, not to mention his connection with Kylo Ren, it became very obvious very quickly. Having said that, it was also extremely well executed and despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the whole film was such a wonderful send off to his character that you completely forgive the obvious breadcrumbs. It’s also how I knew that Luke wouldn’t show up until the very last second and how the entire film is essentially a rehash of all the parts people liked about the first film – but more on that later.
A very bold and wonderful decision must have been made early on to include original cast members as little and as late as possible. And I can’t praise them enough for that. The first third of the film is devoted to the new cast and while it’s cool when Han Solo and Chewbacca make their entrance, their presence feels almost like an unnecessary bonus. By that point you’re so caught up in the captivating lives of these newcomers that you have to pause and say “Oh yeah, those guys.” They’re richly drawn, affable and compelling: Kylo is the conflicted and complicated villain, Poe is the cocksure hero with genuine charisma, Finn is the brave and charming audience surrogate and Rey is easily one of the best strong female characters in a very long time and most importantly none of their traits or deliveries feel forced and the chemistry between them all is phenomenal. But that’s not to say the original cast members have been relegated to cameo status, on the contrary, their personalities are the same but have evolved in the way one would expect after three decades (in a way I’m reminded of the treatment of the Avatar characters in Legend Of Korra). Leia and Han’s falling out over their son feels very real and mature and Luke running away and hiding holds weight with his whiney boy origins. That and Admiral Ackbar seems to pitch the same plan over-and-over but has learned to stay at the base in case of traps.
The direction is on point, the writing is pastiche but heightens the elements we love, the acting is superb, the practical effects are mind-blowing, the costumes are great, the cinematography is wonderful (apologies if you saw it in 3D, I can guarantee you 2D was superior), the production value was wonderful, the hair and makeup felt period appropriate and the editing was nicely handled; all of which combines to produce a really well made sequel. As such, this film is going to make stupid amounts of money and will be critically revered as achieving the impossible. And this success is a big ‘fuck you’ to George Lucas; like getting cheated on and finally dumped before finding the perfect partner while your ex circles the same drain they threw themselves in. George Lucas has said many times that in his eyes Star Wars is a soap opera and is all about people standing around talking, the space battles are just action bits in between ‘the good stuff.’ Subsequently, Lucas has no idea what he’s talking about and I’m glad him and his made-for-tv drama and trade dispute storylines are no longer welcome or present. Lucas also had a rule for the extended canon about killing off original cast, specifically that you weren’t allowed to and I’m glad the decision to off Solo was taken because rather than just being a sensational execution for headlines and shock factor, it was a natural step with emotional resonance.
But this is by no means the film of the year. It’s a great movie but it’s so far from perfect. First of all and probably everyone’s biggest bugbear is that it follows the structure and premise of the first Star Wars film pretty closely: droid with plans being hunted by an evil empire, a young person with a mysterious past lifted out of obscurity, luck and coincidence abound, people get captured and rescued repeatedly, an individual only just introduced to the force seems to get really good at it really quickly, a huge spherical space weapon is unveiled but thankfully has a small weak point which can be exploited, a main character dies, good overcomes evil mostly, everyone goes their separate ways and while the film ends on a positive point many questions remain. But admittedly, that’s what every Star Wars fan wanted anyway, so it’s difficult to explain the negative connotations. My key frustration is that nothing new has been achieved and that will be the responsibility of the next torchbearer, which means this reignition of excitement could be a short lived one. See, the changing of directors from film to film is both a nice touch (mirroring the original trilogy and avoiding stagnation) but also a huge risk. Abrams has reinvigorated this franchise and reminded us all why we love this universe but at the same time, he’s running off. An executive producer is not a director and if early reactions to Star Trek Beyond are any indication, there’s still a potential that the next director won’t be able to deliver to this degree. Just so you know I’m not talking about Rian Johnson, that man’s amazing, I’m talking about Jurassic World director Colin Tervorrow.
Then there were other little things that just quietly pissed me off. I know you can explain characters running into each other as a.) the intention of the force or b.) an homage to the original but George Lucas isn’t a good writer, he genuinely seemed to think people just stumble into pivotal roles haphazardly (in Star Wars, Han and Luke find Leia shortly after walking around a PLANET SIZED base. That’s kinda mental). As I’ve said previously, films that mimic their inspirations so closely also inherit the flaws; The Force Awakens is no exception. Secondly, for a universe filled with characters, aliens and strange worlds, everything seems to revolve around this one fucking family, to the degree that you start looking at any new addition with an analytical squint trying to surmise who their original trilogy forebears are – as if such a thing was even mathematically possible. And even when people are introduced, there are unresolved issues with things like the underused Captain Phasma and her fate after only a small handful of scenes, Kylo being able to sense when his father is on the same planet but not in the same room, how depriving a sun of its energy wouldn’t cause the Starkiller base to effectively explode.. or implode, Rey’s immediate deftness with the force and the list goes on. Some of the CGI looks like average uncanny-valley CGI. With the strong utilisation of practical effects, it only serves to highlight the weak spots of computer generated effects. Case in point, Supreme Leader Snoke, who sort of resembled that alien at the end of Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull>. And a point I didn’t even think would be a problem was the music. John Williams’ score swells with familiar themes but I’ll have to pay close attention through a re-watch to pick up on any really impressive or memorable new themes. Say what you will about the prequels but the music was bloody amazing. Admittedly, the more I think back on these points, the less I care about them. Sure, they’re frustrating but in light of how much was achieved, it’s small fry.
In summary, The Force Awakens is a great film and a nice reintroduction to a world full of potential and wonder. With a whole raft of sequels and spin-offs planned, the future of the Star Wars universe has kicked off to a spectacular start and unless it completely falls on its face at the next hurdle, should inspire countless children and adults to run around the garden making whooshing noises with sticks or piloting spacecraft from the safety of a cardboard box. And if that isn’t the objective of blockbuster cinema it bloody well should be.
18th December 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
I’ll admit Rey’s mastering of the force so quickly was a bit irritating (admittedly Luke mastered that training orb thing after two attempts) but her encounter with the Stormtrooper was rather hilarious. And on top of that, discovering that said Stormtrooper was played by none other than Daniel Craig only serves to elevate the amusement. Either that or the BB-8 thumbs up. Easily the biggest laugh.
Picking between the new characters is really difficult. They’re all so well written that they each bring something thrilling to the table. Having said that, Kylo Ren is easily the most fascinating character. The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa [Fisher], he’s got all of the best and worst qualities of his parents but also his grandfather’s (Darth Vader) malice. The conflict in this kid is kinda heart-breaking but so well portrayed. All the presence of Vader, the rash unpredictable outbursts, the evil acts, the misdirected ambition, they all culminate to bring this rounded character to life in a truly memorable way. Additionally his almost sibling-rivalry with General Hux [Domhnall Gleeson], scrapping it out, vying for power and approval on the same dark path is a nice new element to this setting. Brilliant stuff.
“I know how to run without you holding my hand”
In A Few Words:
“Spectacle with substance”