I’ve held off posting this for a bit to allow for more people to have a chance to see the movie. I myself fastidiously tried to avoid any of the trailers* or reviews (even managed to dodge a few on the radio!) or overall impressions before I saw it so that I would go in fresh…
First SW film since the prequel! Disney at the helm! Many films coming! I didn’t go to the theatre with my lightsabre, but I did go with a good friend who is the biggest SW fan I know of, which, in my estimation, was the best and most appropriate way to see the film. Despite my self-imposed review embargo, I was keenly anticipatory. Let’s go to the stars!
Potential spoilers ahead!
And so, we have The Force Awakens, or, as I prefer to call it, The Force Repeats.
Overall it was lively jaunt, but I found it largely uninspired and mainly uninspiring. It was less painful than watching the prequels, I will give it that. However, from a movie crafting and storytelling quality sense it is, unfortunately, a poor film.
A great sense of “haven’t I seen this movie before?” hit me continually throughout the film. This isn’t just a derivative film, it’s a re-creation, with entire scenes and actions lifted whole cloth from previous episodes. We have not just yet another planet busting weapon**, we end up in another literal trench run to attack some technobabble to prevent it from firing against the hero’s stronghold. We have another giant hologram deformed person giving evil. Heck, right from the get go in the opening crawl we’ve taken all that may have transpired after RotJ and completely wiped it clean to create, effectively, the exact same circumstances (without so much as to what might have actually been interesting, which is the nature of how did we return to that).
In addition, the movie is so heavily laden with tropes bordering on clichés (a common weakness of JJ Abrams in my experience) that I would consistently predict the next few minutes’ scene/dialogue/happenings, which robbed much of the excitement and thrill of the on screen action.
For which, make no mistake, this movie was geared towards just that, an “action movie”. This is not the space opera of yore, this is a full hyperdrive ahead action scene vehicle for frantic activity. I’m not sure JJ Abrams understands Sci Fi or space opera – and this article on Ars Technica does a great job of paralleling my thoughts on the direction of the Trek franchise started under his direction and that lack of understanding I’d say applies here as well – but even as a pure action movie it still does not shine all that brightly. Even in an action movie there’s something needed to glue our interests to the characters, and there’s little here to do that other than we’re expected to. Without all the references to the past we’d have little to hang our hat on.
What does shine here are the visuals. I’ve heard that the team returned to many practical effects and model shots over the all-CG, all the time tact of the prequels, and it shows off well here. Things are vivid, look used and lived in, and carry a sense of weight. Even Luke’s old sabre literally shines here with a vibrancy not seen before. This is a glorious Star Wars tableau to feast the eyes on.
Many of the actors too I feel did a good job with the material they had to work with. There are some pretty strong performances here. Rey and Ren and Finn have good screen presence, and Some of the scenes between Han and Leia are especially grand, with a palpable feeling of history (at the events largely hidden/unexplained in the movie) and the weary yet still loving yet still can’t stand to be in the presence of each other for long yet longing relationship between them. With the exception of one who will not be returning (except perhaps as a ghost – wouldn’t that be weird!) it bodes well for the next two films, especially under a different script writing direction. Many of the roles in this movie were way more caricatures than characters, one-note and one-mood wonders who were asked to chew through the scenery with never-ending oomph. Give them room to move around, room to be human (or alien), and they could really shine.
There are also MANY potentially interesting and rich bits that are hiding under the surface, or off screen. I’ve been reading web pages and commentary that delve into a lot of this, gleaned through interviews and non-movie material, and wow, if half of that was actually broached or included or even hinted at in the film this could have had so much more weight (in many senses of the word). They even lampshaded the “how did you get the lightsaber?” question as an omission – like they know they should’ve been saying more. Mystery is fine, don’t give it all away in the first film, for the journey is the thing, but we need to start the journey, and know why we’re on it.
Just a few other of the things that would’ve been great to explore:
A Stormtrooper breaking his conditioning could have been a fascinating and interesting movie in its own right, but is shown in a perfunctory manner.
An exploration on the myth of the Jedi could’ve been good – remember how Vader was the whipping boy amongst the officers in Ep 4, and Luke had so little knowledge of the Jedi, and Han was all “yeah, whatever?” Seeing how that even evolved more over the past 30 years would’ve been interesting, rather than everyone now seeming to know about both the Millennium Falcon and Luke as a hero.
The actual fall of Ren and the whole new Jedi academy and all that, potentially rich and sure to be mined later for movies, but without some basic information here the big bad comes off more of an Angsty McAngstersons than a true threat. Ironically, the portrayal of Ren in this film is a more well done Anakin from the prequels. (Though given what was said in the original trilogy, the Anakin in the prequels did not seem to match) At least a foundation to ground him – some inkling of WHY he wants to surpass Vader’s – would’ve made the whole thing more compelling.
In summary, the biggest sadness for me is that the film leaves me with a sense of lazy – a lazy attempt to just do it all again, without an actual attempt/effort/understanding to include what made the first film so compelling nor, moreover, to include 30+ years of evolution in movie storytelling craft. Or even, at a minimum, to put together something that doesn’t in just about all ways rely on continual huge coincidences to progress. In some ways this is the Special Special Edition of Star Wars; just another bigger and more effects laden version of Episode 4. (Thankfully, no dance numbers)
I enjoyed watching the movie while I watching it, the theme park ride of it (even as the predictability and incredulity chipped away at the core). And perhaps this movie is not all that much different from much of the action movie fare being released. But I will not use that to excuse a poor effort here. There are movies that are full-fledged “operas” – or even straight-up action movies – done with aplomb, and that’s what would’ve been so amazing to have gotten in The Force Awakens, not a paint-by-numbers rehash that in the end, despite all the frantic action, I’m not sure is compelling enough to recapture for newcomers to the franchise the same oomph that the original SW managed.
The next movie in the trilogy (there’ll be a stand-alone movie released between now and then) is not directed or helmed by JJ Abrams, so fingers crossed on what’ll come out of that.
* – Ironically, part of the reason I avoid trailers to films I want to see is due to the Phantom Menace. I watched that trailer to death, and if I hadn’t, at least there would’ve been some cool new visuals to have seen in the theatre to make up for what I did see…
** – Ok, this Death Star 3 (slogan: Third time is the charm….. right? That’s how it works… right???) calls up so many distracting questions on its operation and stuff. One, it’s a planet – how does it move? Does it move? It drains suns to charge up its weapon, so… it must have moved, right? After firing its big gun the first time, to incinerate 5 planets at once***, it had to have used up the sun, right? So it… somehow made it to another sun really fast? And, hold on, if you’re draining suns… why the smeg do you need a big gun anyway? You’ve DESTROYED THEIR SUN. That pretty much dooms the entire solar system right there!
*** – And for the love of the Force JJ, yet another planet destroying witnessed by someone standing on a nearby planetoid, a la Trek reboot? Scale does NOT work that way, especially not for FIVE planets, which… I guess… were all in the same solar system? Which means the planet buster was also in the same solar system? No? What?