Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

Posted: December 20, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

*This review doesn’t contain any major spoilers, but if you want to go into the film completely blind, this is not the review for you.
star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

To call Star Wars: The Force Awakens the most anticipated film of 2015 does not really encapsulate just how huge the film is. Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm back in October of 2012, fans have been obsessing over the future of the Star Wars saga. What films would be made? Who would be directing? When would they be set? Would the original cast be returning? Eventually, it became known that Disney would create a series of Anthology films, as well as a new trilogy continuing after the original classics. The first film to launch this new era of Star Wars was subtitled The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams was announced as the director, and the original cast was set to return. Since then, every piece of news has been scrutinized and endlessly pontificated upon, from trailers to concept art. Personally, I was very excited for the film. The trailers were excellent and many of the cast and crew seemed to carry the passion for the project, but I also made an effort to keep my expectations in check. I kept telling myself that Disney didn’t spend $4.05 billion for Lucasfilm in order to tell an artistic story. It was a business move and thus, to some extent, The Force Awakens is an investment. That doesn’t mean the film couldn’t also be great, but I thought it was important to keep that in mind.

It has been thirty years since the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, but the galaxy has not become a paragon of peace and stability. Conflict is still abundant; out of the ashes of the Empire the First Order has risen to find and kill Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has gone into exile following a failed attempt to revive the Jedi order. The Order is led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a mysterious background figure who mainly acts through his subordinates, namely aspiring Sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Combatting the Order is the Resistance (formerly the Rebel Alliance) who have vital information regarding the location of Skywalker. Such data is first entrusted to pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) before eventually coming to a small droid named BB-8. This droid eventually comes into contact with a poor scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a former Stormtrooper disillusioned with the First Order named Finn (John Boyega). The pair’s efforts to help the droid lead them to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the group become embroiled in the Resistance’s efforts to defeat The First Order.

The most important thing The Force Awakens had to accomplish was feel like an authentic Star Wars movie. After the prequels were so thoroughly despised (in large part because of how foreign they felt to the original trilogy), fans needed to feel like this new series was the Star Wars they had originally fallen in love with. On this front, The Force Awakens succeeds. The score, visual style, special effects, iconography, and editing all feel like they’ve been pulled right out of the original trilogy. Additionally, the film actually serves as a nice continuation of the character arcs found in old films. Luke, Han, and Leia (Carrie Fisher) are not just shoehorned in to bridge the gap from the old to the new, but are given interesting things to do and intriguing stories. It helps that all three actors have returned to their roles rather seamlessly. I was particularly worried that Harrison Ford be sleepwalking his way through the way he has so many modern roles, but the man feels genuinely energized and invested. It didn’t feel like I was watching the elderly Harrison Ford, but that I was seeing Han Solo.

In a lot of ways, seeing so much of the classic Star Wars elements brought to life felt like coming home, but the dedication to replicate the success of the old also serves as The Force Awakens’ greatest weakness. The film is almost shameless in how blatantly it rips off the plot structure, character types, and story beats of the original Star Wars (aka A New Hope). Both films see the heroes hiding data by smuggling it in a droid, a young down on their luck hero who learns of the Force, a villain dynamic similar to that of The Emperor/Darth Vader/Grand Moff Tarkin, an X-Wing filled climax, and several other details that veer a bit too close to spoiler territory for me to dwell on here. In fact, J.J. Abrams seems to have gone out of his way to reproduce ideas from the original even when it is unnecessary. There is no reason, for example, that Rey also be from a desert planet, yet Jakku is remarkably similar to Luke’s home planet of Tatooine in terms of visuals and even social structure. The film also has their own take on the Mos Eisley Cantina with a bar set full of odd alien designs and funky music. None of this material is bad exactly, but it does reinforce just how heavily Abrams and co are leaning on the groundwork of the classic films.

What’s even more frustrating about the efforts to recreate whole scenes from the original trilogy is that it dilutes the original ideas The Force Awakens does put forward. The idea of one of the protagonists being a former Stormtrooper at odds with the violence he was trained to inflict is a good one, and the film introduces this very well early on. However, once Finn meets up with Rey, he becomes more of a standard film hero. He doesn’t really feel like a soldier haunted by the atrocities he’s seen, nor is it entirely clear why he was able to mentally break from The First Order, unlike his peers. Granted, John Boyega gives a very charming and fun turn so it almost doesn’t matter, but I still think the film missed an opportunity in not exploring that character more thoroughly. One new story aspect that was given a bit more attention was the character of Kylo Ren. I won’t go into the details, but his backstory is actually really interesting and his relationship with another key character leads to some really poignant moments. Ren also proves a really effective villain. He isn’t a totally evil person, but a young man with conflicted emotions trying to find his place and prove himself. Adam Driver is perfectly cast in this sort of role and he really shines here. Now, is this material overshadowed by a lot of the other elements? Sure, but even so Ren still comes through strongly.

I’ve spoken about the strong performances throughout the film here and there, but I feel I should step back and really acknowledge how good the cast as a whole is. The film does a really good job of balancing the new characters with the old and the dynamics between everyone feel natural. In addition to the strong work from Boyega and Driver, I was also really impressed by Daisy Ridley, who proves a very compelling screen presence. Rey herself is a very simplistic character, but Ridley brings such charm and charisma to the screen that she still resonates. Oscar Isaac also has a fun little role that I suspect will be expanded on in future films and I really liked Lupita Nyong’o’s brief but highly memorable motion capture role as pirate turned bar owner Maz Kanata. Of course, with so many characters and elements, I can’t say much of this is explored in much depth. It’s pretty clear that a lot of the film is meant to set-up payoffs in later films, and while I am interested in how things play out, it does make The Force Awakens a little insubstantial in its own right, at least until those sequels arrive.

Those who saw Abrams’ Star Trek films know the man is adept at working with big casts and character dynamics, and they also know the man can direct a pretty exciting action scene. In addition to the strong character dynamics, Abrams also crafts a lot of really engaging action sequences which range from being just fun romps, to more dramatic set-pieces which do carry some power. There is one really superfluous scene involving a cargo ship and some creatures, but for the most part, the action scenes are important to the plot and highly gripping. The film also features some very impressive visual effects. These aren’t the boundary pushing visuals found in the original trilogy, nor the ambitious misfires found in the prequels, but the mix of both CGI and practical effects proves effective. I was certainly never pulled out of the film by any poor effects work and the aforementioned mix was pretty seamless for the most part.

My initial description of The Force Awakens as an investment is really quite accurate. It seems the central goal of this film was to simply show people that this is the Star Wars they know and love in order to get them on board for what is to come. This largely explains why the film leans so hard on the existing mythos rather than blazing its own trail. From a business perspective, this is quite logical. It wouldn’t make sense to put so much into this new series and then fuck it up right out of the gate with an overly stuffed film. At the same time, as a film buff, I do wish the filmmakers were able to add something a bit more unique to The Force Awakens. However this might be a little unfair, and I don’t want to undersell the movie’s positive traits. There are a lot of things to like about The Force Awakens; the cast is great, the action exciting, the direction very solid, and the film does have moments of greatness. Is it a good movie? Absolutely, one I certainly recommend, but I don’t really think this is some new masterpiece. At the same time though, I must admit, I’m very excited for what the future may hold for Star Wars.

B+

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