This review is heavy on the spoilers, so do yourself a favor and check out the film first.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: J.J. Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan
Poor George Lucas. That guy created what is probably the most popular movie franchise ever with the Original Trilogy of Star Wars. His vision of a flash-gordonesque space adventure was a risky proposition for the financial backers and wasn’t an easy sell. He gave his all to get the movie made and when it came out, his gamble paid off big time. Star Wars, and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi became massive successes and they cemented their status in the popular culture as the most recognized space franchises ever. When it became clear that audiences wanted more, George Lucas started to make a prequel trilogy about the backstory of Darth Vader, the iconic villain of the Original Trilogy. The masses were hyped about the new trilogy that was about to come, but after The Phantom Menace came out, people seemed to get confused and angry about the direction George Lucas was taking the new trilogy. While those three films were successful financially, the general reception concerning the films were mixed at best. Everybody seemed to be angry to George Lucas for ruining their vision of what Star Wars should ‘ve been. With all the financial and creative independency, George Lucas’ vision of a faster and more intense Star Wars never came to be. The fans of Star Wars wanted to remove Lucas from Star Wars, his own creation. And it seems George Lucas finally gave up and gave the masses exactly what they wanted and sold the rights for Star Wars (and every other LucasFilm IP’s) to Disney for a staggering 4 billion space bucks. Poor George Lucas.
So now Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is out and we finally get to see Disney’s new vision of the new Star Wars trilogy… Which is pretty much more of the same, it seems. But let’s dig in a bit deeper.
It’s been 30 years since the events of Return of The Jedi. The remnants of the Empire have evolved to a new fascist boy’s club named The First Order (mostly comprised of the remaining members of what once was Joy Division). Their aim is once again to restore order in the galaxy by burning villages and shooting Jawas in the mouth. Among them is a masked Sith-wannabe Kylo Ren who’s in search for the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. But he is not alone in his desire to locate Luke, for the good guys want to find the Jedi master as well. A part of a map to Skywalker is delivered to a heroic fighter pilot named Poe Dameron (didn’t Nicolas Cage already play him in Con Air?), but before he can leave with the information, the First Order shows up guns blazing, killing Poe’s contact (bye-bye Max Von Sydow, thanks for stopping by). Poe gets captured by Kylo Ren but manages to stick the information to his trusty companion, a ballsy droid named BB-8. The droid makes a run (well, a roll) for it and ends up with a junk scavenger named Rey. Meanwhile, Poe escapes from clutches of the First Order with a help from a turn-coat Storm Trooper named Finn. Their daring escape leaves them separated and Finn ends up with Rey and BB-8. Together they embark on a journey to find Skywalker and fight the evil Empire –sorry, the First Order with the help of other familiar faces from the Original Trilogy.
The plot of the film is pretty straight-forward and is very reminiscent of A New Hope, maybe a bit too much for its own good. Secret coordinates hidden in a droid before imminent capture of the bad guys? Check. An inexperienced but good-hearted hero? Double check. A planet-sized super weapon that is laughably easy to destroy by a bunch of X-Wing fighters? Check as fuck. The plot is one of the weaker elements of the film (I’ll get to the other stuff in a bit), but what really works is the characters. See, the chemistry of the main players is especially strong. Our three new heroes, namely Poe, Rey and Finn each play excellently against each other and the actors do mainly good job with their respected characters. Oscar Isaac as Poe is charming in an Errol Flynn kind of a way, and seeing that most heroes these days tend to be more cynical, it is refreshing to see Isaac play his heroism with such earnestness. The film gets better every time he is on the screen which is a shame that he is in the film surprisingly less than I expected. John Boyega’s Finn is a great addition in the Star Wars character roster. A turncoat storm trooper finding his place in the galaxy gives good material for Boyega’s character to brood on, but his sense of awe and excitement in the face of adventure is his most endearing attributes. When he is thrilled by something that happens in the film, so is the audience.
Reviewing Daisy Ridley’s portrayal Rey is a bit more complicated of a task. It’s obvious that J.J. Abrams and fellow screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan are buiding Rey’s character as the most important one in the grander scheme*, but it comes at a cost. Her orphaned scavenger is a strong female character, but not necessarily in the right way. Hear me out. I’m getting fed up with female characters that are that only superficially. I mean when did the ability to kick ass (and mainly of the opposite sex) substitution for inner strength? She is capable of flying a ship and judo-throw people left and right but very little else is revealed of her persona. Sure, she gazes to the stars like Luke before her and is seemingly similarly disinterested to embrace the vast galaxy and the adventure that lies before her, but that doesn’t make her a strong female role model, only a hero’s journey with tits. Still, her character is shrouded by so much mystery about her past that her character is understandably unable to have a satisfying character ark. Daisy Ridley’s acting abilities are also a mixed bag. Her acting switches from reasonably good to Keira Knightly (not a compliment). She does do a great Elizabeth Swan impression, though. I just don’t think Star Wars is the best place to do it.
How does the returning characters fare, you ask? Well, Han Solo and Chewbacca are there to spruce things up and they have that good ol’ buddy banter going. Harrison Ford is clearly having fun with the role and Han’s role of the wise mentor type goes nicely against his character in the past. He also has some unsolved stuff in his past to work out and some of it with his old flame Leia. Carrie Fisher gives probably her best possible performance as Leia and it’s good enough, though her big scene with Harrison Ford falls flat, but that’s mostly the screenwriters fault. That scene where they reminisce about their failed relationship is eerily close to George Lucas’ exposition heavy dialogue writing. Damn it Kasdan, you can write this shit but you can’t say this shit! Oh yeah, C-3PO and R2-D2 are presented as well but are mostly wasted. R2 sleeps through his entire performance which is appropriate because the droid is in a robot coma for some reason. That new droid BB-8 is miles better than almost anything or anyone in the film. His version of thumbs up is almost as adorable as a horny turtle. I could watch that little fella for hours. Same goes for BB-8.
How about the bad guys? Darth Vader was an excellent villain and his mates Grandmuffin Tarkin and Black Metal Palpatine gave him sinister support, so the new guys have pretty big shoes to fill, right? Captain Phasma is the new ms. Boba Fett and she is too by the book to be wearing that armor. Why wear that shiny battle harness if she’s the dean to Finn’s Animal House? Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is doing his best Hitler-Jugend impression and is ok, if a little underwhelming as a character. Though I really loved the scene that mirrors Grandmoff Tarkin’s arrogance in the first Star Wars. See, in the New Hope Tarkin is so enthralled by his impeding victory over the rebels that he outright ignores his fellow officer’s plead to abandon the battle station when it’s discovered that the rebels might have found a way to take them out. In Force Awakens however, when the First Order learns that their evil schemes might be foiled by the rebel fleet, Hux is already gone. That guy immediately bailed the fuck out. I love that. Andy Serkis’s mo-cap suit plays the part of Supreme Leader Snoke, and he is the main heavy of the trilogy, sort of like an emperor substitute. First when he is introduced I was pleasantly surprised by his enormous size, but I was seriously let down by the fact that only his hologram was a giant. Missed opportunity, but I hope that public outcry will rectify this in later installments. I mean we still don’t know his real presence. It was only a hologram, after all.
And that brings us to Kylo Ren. Marketed as the new Vader of the trilogy, this character needed to connect with the audience for the new trilogy to soar. Initially when the marketing began I was hesitant to embrace Kylo Ren as a design and a character wholeheartedly because it seemed that the film makers were trying too hard to make him scary and cool. I just didn’t buy his bad-assitude.
But his character is actually more complicated than I expected and while Kylo Ren isn’t the character I wanted, he’s a character what we needed. You see Kylo Ren wants to be scary. Kylo Ren wants to be cool. Kylo Ren wants to be Darth Vader. He is a young naïve emo kid who has no other means to express his angst but to wear a mask that alters his voice and whack his office with a red lightsaber every once in a while.
The first order mostly sees the kid as an inconvenient cosplayer who is there because Supreme Leader Snoke favours him for some reason and lets him use First Order as his role-play army. Kylo Ren is like a special needs type of boy who is allowed to express himself, because any behaviour is better than none. Also his mask looks like the tail light of a Škoda Octavia.
Kylo Ren’s weaknesses make him easy to manipulate and his behavior is erratic enough to make him a wild card in the film. Kylo Ren’s weaknesses make him stronger as a character and it’s good that the film makers took this approach to Kylo Ren. I’m very curious about the development of his character ark in the upcoming films.
Some characters just don’t have enough screen time to make an appearance, like Luke Skywalker, who’s in the film for like twenty seconds. There’s also a very interesting storm trooper who seems to have a beef with Finn (I believe his name was something like TR-8-OR) and his short appearance made enough impact for him to appear in his own spin-off movie, I’m sure. Well, at least in the future extended universe publications. The new CGI-character Maz Kanata is the Yoda-like old wise alien who gives much needed guidance to Rey. The design of Maz is interesting and the effects are okay, but the character lacks in personality. Still, she’s miles better than Jar-Jar Binx, for sure. The various storm troopers are given nice little character moments that made me smile wide all across the board, like the two soldiers who decide to skip Kylo Ren’s hulk-out moment altogether. Oh, and Daniel Craig kills with his cameo.
How about the technical aspects of the film? The CGI is very good except that one explosion where a stone fence blows up toward the viewer. That effect looked unfinished and honestly, something straight out of full motion video cutscene of a PlayStation 2 game. The practical creature effects are the high-point of the effect work and BB-8’s design and execution is awards-worthy on its own. Well, that and the giant asshole on that pig/buffalo-creature.
The designs on the three main locations are a letdown, to be honest. Jakku looks pretty much like Tatooine, and Maz Kanata’s home planet (Takodana or something) looks like the rebel base from A New Hope. And Starkiller Base gives a strong Hoth with trees -vibe. The set design manages to shine in places though despite the boring locations. Crashed star destroyers and deserted AT-AT’s tell a story about the history of Jakku and makes an interesting back story to the planet and its inhabitants, including Rey. The costume design is passable, as is the photography. The Director of Photography Dan Mindel tries to emulate the look of the original trilogy and manages to do so, but it’s clear that he is out of his comfort zone. His work reminds me of Janusz Kaminski’s work in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, where Kaminski was forced to imitate Douglas Slocombe’s photography style from the previous Indy films. Mindel, like Kaminski do good work, but it’s clear that they’re not comfortable shooting with style cemented by previous DP’s. The 3D was mostly pointless and makes the dark film look even murkier. Although that one shot with the Star Destroyer floating in front of the viewer is the stuff 3D is made for.
And then there’s the score by John Williams.
Now I think John Williams is the best composer alive. His scores for the Prequel trilogy is the highlight of those films and his ability to write memorable themes is his greatest strength, which is kind of surprising that the score for The Force Awakens is really light on strong recognizable themes. The score sounds big and the action ques kick ass, but the lack of new themes makes it harder to appreciate the new material. If you’d ask me to hum any of the new themes, I couldn’t. In comparison, if you’d ask me to hum General Grievous’ theme from Revenge of the Sith, I could do it in a heartbeat. I love John Williams, but I really believe that it is time for him to step down and let someone else try to inject some new fire in the score. And by someone, I mean Michael Giacchino who has, up till now, done every score for J.J. Abrams’ films. The score is serviceable, but it should be legendary. And it could’ve been. I read an interview with John Williams where he mentions that his creative process was different than what J.J. Abrams was accustomed to. And unfortunately it shows. Not necessarily for a regular viewer, but to a film score enthusiast like myself, it feels like a missed opportunity. Ben Burtt’s sound design is top notch though and I’m glad it’s not muddled by overtly powerful dynamic range, which is usually the case with a J.J. Abrams film.
It might seem that me nitpicking The Force Awakens indicates that I dislike the film, but no, I really enjoyed the film. It’s not the second coming of the Christ, but it is an enjoyable science fantasy actioner held up by good characters, fine action sequences (the chase with the Millenium Falcon is the best sequence in the film) and a great sense of humor. It shares similarities with the New Hope, but also in a way that makes the film easily approachable. It’s not overtly dark, except the bit where Han Solo dies (whoops, spoilers), but it shouldn’t be. That’s the sequel’s job. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a worthy sequel for the most well-known space films ever made. Its heart is in the right place and it’s a true Star Wars film, only faster and more intense.
Exactly what George Lucas wanted.
Best Scene: That scene where Rey and Fin steal the Millennium Falcon. The effects, acting, editing, music and photography all gel together perfectly in that scene. And it’s capped with Harrison Ford’s perfect delivery on the “Chewie, we’re home” –line.
Most Memorable Bit: BB-8 giving the thumbs up.
*Everybody seems to agree that Rey is the daughter of Luke Skywalker, but I don’t think so. First of all, Luke’s supposed to be a Jedi master and Jedi Masters are mostly folks that embrace celibacy. No, I think Rey is an offspring of a powerful Jedi/Sith (maybe Snope?). When Kylo Ren tries to mind probe Rey and she turns the tables I think that’s the first scene where Rey reveals her Dark Side of the Force. I believe that Snoke will be interested to turn Rey evil and mopey Kylo Ren will feel himself obsolete. So in the end it will be a fight not about Kylo Ren’s soul, but that of Rey’s… But we’ll see. I think Kasdan and Abrams are doing something more elaborate than have Luke train his daughter into a Jedi master.