Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Movie Review)

So, the big moment of the year has finally come and gone. This past Thursday, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in the 38-year old movie franchise was released to great fanfare and the internet has been abuzz with speculations and discussions ever since. This is the first movie of the franchise that has been released under the auspices of Disney, which bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas some three years back, and is also the first in a new trilogy that will also eventually veer off into several spin-offs, charting a bold new era.

However, we come back to the movie itself. When Disney declared that all existing Star Wars canon outside of the movies and 2-3 animated series was now part of a discontinued universe termed Star Wars Legends, I was mad as hell. I’m a huge fan of the incredible and complex tapestry that has been woven by thousands of people in the last four decades and for Disney to disrespect that in such a way screamed foul to me. But, I was willing to give the movie a chance because when the trailers hit, I was ecstatic. They hit the right note for me and promised so much. And now I tell you whether the movie lived up to those promises.

Note: This review contains massive spoilers. Do not read if you have not seen the movie as yet.

Star Wars LogoI’ll get this out of the way right now. I did not like The Force Awakens. I had good enough fun with the movie, and I was certainly excited as the traditional, iconic theme song started playing and the familiar roll-up intro began, but as the time wore on, I was more and more disappointed. What could have been a great movie was laid low by magnified mistakes of the previous movies and ended up riddled with plot holes and unexplained phenomenon that veered into the deus ex machina territory.

To sum it up, the first half of the movie is excellent and it certainly evokes the magic of the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy and even what I have always felt that Star Wars meant to me. But the second half was dreary and predictable and outlandish, even within the context of the franchise. It was a decent movie by any measure, but it failed miserably on several points that could have well made it one of the best movies in the franchise, rivaling The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope.

The primary failing of this movie is that it tries too hard to evoke the magic of the earlier movies. The story beats seem to copied over from the original trilogy, following the set formula that we saw back in the prequel trilogy more than a decade ago, and it doesn’t really try to do anything bold and different. Sure, I certainly got hit by the nostalgia of it several times, but I was also frustrated because I couldn’t see much of an originality in the script. Perhaps I’ve become too jaded, or I’m just being overly critical, but The Force Awakens did not have the Star Wars magic that I wanted it to have. Revenge of the Sith hit the notes perfectly in comparison, despite some of the silliness.

MASSIVE SPOILERS. BEWARE.

And then there’s the many concepts and mysteries that were introduced and then promptly solved by the end of the movie. For starters, there are a ton of things happening in the movie. At some level, this is acceptable because many of these characters are new to the franchise, even when you take the Star Wars Expanded Universe into account, but things were much more condensed than anyone could have anticipated. Whether it is the years-long separation between Han and Leia, the reveal of Kylo Ren being their son, Luke’s disappearance and R2D2’s shutdown, Supreme Leader Snoke, General Hux, Captain Phasma, the Starkiller base, Poe Dameron’s relationship with Leia, Rey and Finn, the Republic and the Resistance versus the Empire and the First Order, the death of Han Solo, or what have you, it was an overload of the senses.

What I wanted from the movie was for it to take things at a much slower pace. The beauty of the original movies, and even the prequels, is that they end up being more more subtle than you’d expect. Take the fan theory about why Padme died and how Anakin was reborn as Darth Vader at the end of Episode 3, with it all being the Dark Side manipulation of Darth Sidious to make sure that Vader survived by his side, completely faithful and loyal to him alone and without any familial attachments. George Lucas probably didn’t have this outcome in mind, but it is how we can connect many of the dots, and it is fun to do stuff like this. Or even take the presentation of the Force in the original movies and how we get the various characters to comment on it, creating an enormous pool of knowledge without even realizing it. Small hints here and there help make it a complex reality.

And The Force Awakens does not have any of that. It presents everything up-front and seemingly doesn’t leave much to be told for the future two installments for the new trilogy. For instance, take the Empire itself. We learn in the movie that the First Order is a radical, militant branch of the Empire and that it is out for blood. It is more ruthless and unforgiving than the Empire, and is just plain worse. What we never find out is why. The movie never explains how the First Order got going and what drives its leaders, leaders such as Captain Phasma, General Hux, and even Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke. And then, is Snoke leading the First Order or the Empire? If I recall correctly, that is never explained either. And these are the details that really matter. In the original movies, there was a gradual rise of intensity in the bad guys. We first met Tarkin and Vader. Then we met the Emperor and there was an unresolved duel between Vader and Luke. Then we finally had a second, definitive duel between father and son while the evil mastermind observed, and eventually the bad guys were defeated. But there’s no such thing in this movie. We are introduced to all the leaders in one go and we never really get that sense of depth and mystery that was ever-present in the original movies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rey (Daisy Ridley) Ph: David James ©Lucasfilm 2015

Make no mistake, by its very nature, The Force Awakens invites comparisons to the movies before it. And it doesn’t help that the creative team saw fit to mimic those movies to such a degree. We have the central hero who is strong in the Force, a capable mechanic and a pilot as well, and also seemingly involved in a romantic plot. We have the student who witnesses the death of a mentor. We have the villain who uses the Dark Side to carry out interrogations and manipulates people and even has some temper tantrums. We have the “hidden” villain who directs the main on-screen villain to greater heights of ruthlessness and murder and betrayal. We have a son who is at odds with his father (or even father-figure).

There are also so many other things that I found myself at odds with in The Force Awakens. For example, the reactions of the franchise’s two leading characters to the main tragedy off-screen: when Kylo Ren betrays Luke and the new Jedi Order that the latter had built up, he apparently slaughtered the new young Jedi and Padawans; as a consequence, Luke up and leaves in self-pity while Kylo’s father Han does the same and goes back to a life of smuggling. What the hell? What was the purpose of this whole turn of events? There are numerous bad stories in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, such as The Crytal Star and The Courtship of Princess Leia, but The Force Awakens seems set to outdo them in idiocy. Why didn’t Luke try to stop Kylo and his so-called Knights of Ren who, for all intents and purposes, never appeared in the present-day story of the movie? Why didn’t Han go out after Kylo to bring him back? In the Expanded Universe, Han went to hell and back to save Kyp Durron from turning over to the Dark Side. And Kyp was just some Kessel miner that Han knew, albeit someone close enough to be a friend. If he could do that with Kyp, even after Kyp destroyed an entire planet of Imperials with a superweapon to match the Death Star, then why did he not do it for his own damn son? If we look at the prequel movies, Obi-Wan went and fought Anakin after it was revealed that Anakin had become Darth Sidious’ new apprentice. He didn’t want to fight him because he considered Anakin to be a friend, a brother, and Yoda had to force him to do it, but he did it anyway. But Luke and Han couldn’t be bothered and just gave up? That rings hollow to me.

And this is what I really hate about the new canon of Star Wars that Disney wants to push. They are making changes for the hell of it, and little of it is leaving a lasting impact on me. I feel just… thoroughly dissatisfied.

Another thing is that I just didn’t buy the contrivance of R2D2 having shut himself down after Luke left, despite having a map to his supposed location. And what, the Resistance didn’t have any resources to force the information from the astromech? And then BB8 just comes along, prods him a few times, and all of a sudden R2D2 is alive and kicking and solves the biggest mystery of the movie. I audibly groaned at the scene, even though I had been expecting it and it was telegraphed so heavily early on.

Related to Luke’s disappearance is also the fact that somehow, the trader and supposed pirate Maz Kanata got a hold of Luke’s first lightsaber, the one that Obi-Wan Kenobi gave to him in Star Wars, saying that it had belonged to his father. Last we saw of that lightsaber, it had disappeared in one of the Bespin trash heaps, possibly lost in the clouds. And yet, somehow, Maz has it, and she tries to force it on to two people, first Rey and then Finn. I mean, what in the name of *********? I’m sure that there is some significance to all of this. Something that will be explained in the future installments of the new trilogy. But man, this movie creates so many damn questions and we don’t get any answers.

Most important of all is that apparently Kylo Ren changed his name when he became all broody and evil. There’s a scene in the movie, right before Han is killed, when he calls out Kylo by his real name. I thought he was just calling him Ren, but my wife was of the opposite opinion and then I did some slight digging. Turns out that his name is actually Ben Solo. You get it, Ben Solo. In the Expanded Universe, Leia and Han have three kids: twins Jacen and Jaina, and then Anakin. In the Expanded Universe, Luke named his son after his first mentor, Ben. You get it? Ben Skywalker. Not only did the creative team behind the movie was unfit to come up with an original real name for the main villain, but they also conflated the names of two popular characters of the Expanded Universe. This is beyond silly. This is just… criminal. Anakin Skywalker was named so because Leia had finally come to terms with her father’s legacy and she wanted to honor the man he had been before he became a villain. In fact, it is also laid out in one of the books, can’t remember the name right now, that Leia didn’t even want to start a family with Han because she was afraid of their children becoming the same as her father. She really didn’t have any connection to Obi-Wan Kenobi except through the stories that her father told of the Clone Wars. Neither did Han because he just thought that Ben was some kind of a mumbo-jumbo-talking-something. This one thing makes me really, really mad about the movie.

Of course, there’s also the progression of the story. It all starts out innocently enough with an introduction to one of the new leads of the franchise, X-wing pilot Poe Dameron who comes to Jakku on Leia’s orders to find out what has happened to Luke. Then we are introduced to the brutality of the First Order and Kylo Ren, we meet the second lead Finn, and then we are on back to Jakku to meet with the third and final lead, Rey. Along the way, there are some fun things happening, though Poe’s supposed death was another contrivance that fell short in the second half. But, I was still on-board with everything because I was having the time of my life. Three new characters, three new exciting and mysterious backstories. Rey was definitely my favourite. The story laid out well enough what her circumstances were and who she is, “in the moment” so to speak, and the confluence of events that brought these three characters together were fine.

The cinematography and the direction were excellent. Some really good set pieces that framed the contexts for all three characters and really showed us who they were and even what drove them to do the things that they did. And with the disproportionate focus on Rey, it was also clear that she was the “Luke” or “Anakin” story while Poe and Finn were the leading supporting characters. Or something like that. What really captured me most of all were the scenes of Rey’s life as a scavenger on Jakku. Beautiful backstory that enhanced who the character was and where she was perhaps headed. And that one scene, with Rey on her speeder against the backdrop of a crashed Imperial Star Destroyer was just awe-inspiring. I said as much during my “Trailer Thoughts” article some months back. That one scene laid bare the grandeur of the franchise and was just an all-around amazing shot. The acting was also something that I didn’t have an issue with. Whereas I found some of the comedy between Finn and Poe to be forced, perhaps reminiscent of something like the Bad Boys franchise, I gave it a pass because the chemistry between Finn and Rey was excellent. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley seemed calm and rehearsed, totally into the characters, and I really wish that somehow the creative team had found a way to put all three of them together early on, much as how Han, Leia and Luke had some crazy adventures in the Death Star in Star Wars all those years back. That would have been fantastic.

But once we got off Jakku, that’s when things started to take a bit of a turn for the worse. What really bothered me early on was the fact that someone had somehow stolen the Millennium Falcon from Han and Chewie and that the duo had spent years looking for it. And in the meantime they had taken on less-than-honest jobs for various criminal cartels and smugglers. That was just… plain odd. I mean, talk about reducing the agency of two of the most popular characters ever. That whole thing just made them out to be silly caricatures, not an impression I care about and it just made me sad. But then again, it also put the whole “Chewie, we’re home” dialogue into a proper context, and I have to say that I loved the moment when the two of them came onboard and met Rey and Finn. It was like a jigsaw puzzle becoming complete, and I also loved the easy familiarity that developed between the old guard and the new, especially between Han and Rey. Wish they had worked more on that!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

Over the course of the movie however, we see some really weird stuff. Some of it I have already mentioned above. Some of it is really outrageous. Such as the fact that the First Order built a planet-bound superweapon, Starkiller base, that was powered by the local sun. Let’s forget for a moment that such kind of… bases have a really bad pedigree in the entire franchise. After all, the Rebels destroyed two Death Stars in the movies and in the Expanded Universe, Luke and his friends were responsible for destroying others like the Sun Crusher and the Galaxy Gun, each more improbable than the last. In fact, even the name Starkiller is a misnomer since the First Order didn’t use it to destroy stars, but planets. It was actually a rather pathetic attempt at revisiting the Death Star concept for the movies. JJ Abrams and team were really, really beholden to follow the pattern of the original trilogy it seems. Additionally, the name Stariller is also a misdirection and an easter egg in another way. Luke’s surname originally was Starkiller, in one of the many drafts that George Lucas wrote for the original movie. It was later changed to Skywalker, and IIRC it has only been brought up once in the SWEU, in the video game franchise Knights of the Old Republic which has a Mandalorian bounty hunter with the same name, Bendak Starkiller.

The fact that Starkiller Base is orders of magnitude bigger than the second Death Star is already a silly thing. But then the writers made it worse than you could have thought possible. Think back to the original trilogy. The destruction of the Death Stars happened after the Rebel Alliance had sourced detailed plans of the battle stations and had sent in their best starfighter pilots and an entire fleet of ships after them. Comparatively in The Force Awakens, Starkiller Base was taken out by a janitor-turned-Stormtrooper who defected to the “Resistance”, an aging smuggler, a middle-aged Wookie, a nascent Force-user, some home-grown explosives and barely an X-wing squadron, tops. Beyond improbable. That’s just bad writing. Its all like a really bad comedy of errors.

To be honest, I would have been fine with the way that Starkiller Base was portrayed. It seemed to mix in the concepts of the Death Stars and the Galaxy Gun and though the execution was less-than-satisfactory, it wasn’t that big a deal. But then to be destroyed as it was? That was just really, really disappointing. When the Death Stars were destroyed, it was a big moment. There had been real hurdles for the characters and they had to face some pretty harsh truths and challenges. But Poe, Finn and Rey went through none of the same things. Here’s a way to put it into perspective: Red Squadron (later on known as Rogue Squadron) lost more pilots on the attack run against the first Death Star than Poe Dameron’s squadron did against the Starkiller Base. How’s that for lazy writing and plotting?

Mixed into all of this is the fact that as with the nebulous relationship between the Empire and the First Order, so it is with the New Republic and the so-called Resistance. In the “Legends” canon (I hate that term), some years after the events of The Return of The Jedi, the Rebel Alliance finally amassed enough strength to take back Coruscant, thus establishing the New Republic and dealing the Empire a major blow. From then on, the New Republic became the premier intergalactic government and lasting for some two and a half decades until the extragalactic threat of the Yuuzhan Vong materialized. Any “response” that happened when the New Republic faced down a major threat was a response from the Republic. There was no “Resistance” nonsense. Yet The Force Awakens will have us believe that the Resistance is a splinter group of some kind of the Republic and is operating as a separate body, much as the First Order is doing with the Empire. That just doesn’t go down well with me. And the problem is that none of it is explained.

And that’s what the movie was lacking most of all: details! If JJ Abrams and the writing team had seen fit to cut out much of the plot elements and characters, then we could have had a movie to rival Star Wars. Say, cut out everything with General Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke. Give Hux’s role to Captain Phasma, because let’s face it, despite all the hype surrounding Gwendoline Christie’s character, Phasma fell completely flat and was sad and ineffectual throughout the movie. Transferring over Hux’s role to her would have given the audience a better reason to be invested in her character and also made her out to be a much bigger deal, which seems more appropriate to me. Cut out everything with Maz Kanata and R2D2 and Luke’s disappearance. Allow characters like Poe Dameron to come to the center and establish themselves. Have the new leading trio interact more with each other and establish themselves as the characters to follow in this new arc. Kill all the nonsense with the Resistance and the First Order. Establish the war as between the Republic and the Empire. Things were needlessly complicated in the movie and there really shouldn’t have been.

Still, when all is said and done, The Force Awakens does push the nostalgia buttons. Seeing Han and Chewie again together at the helm of the Millennium Falcon is a great feeling. Seeing Rey master her nascent Force-abilities is phenomenal (this could have been pushed so much more and the writers should have been allowed to delve further into this concept). Poe Dameron was this intriguing mix of Han and Luke, with the personality to match. I am sad that we couldn’t have Wedge Antilles in the new movies, but I’m fine with Poe making his own way into this new future. Finn could have used a bit more development, and less paranoia, but even he was fine in the end. The trailers did this weird job of distracting attention away from Rey onto Finn, and I think that was a twist that was well-rewarded for the viewer. I certainly enjoyed it. Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums reminded me of Darth Vader’s more… fatalistic moments from the point of view of his underlings, but Kylo’s outbursts also made more sense because he is still uncertain about his loyalties and his future. He is still emotional and suffering from some deep hurts. And John Williams’ music, well, that’s just too iconic for words.

Taking everything into account, and what I have said already, I am also perfectly fine with how the three new main leads have worked out. Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega have done a pretty phenomenal job of connecting the old generation to the new. Adam Driver’s performance sometimes fell flat, especially since his character is overfond of removing his helmet and “exposing his innocense”, but it doesn’t bother me so much. I was dissatisfied that Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie effectively only got voiceover parts, because I would have loved for them to have been on camera more, but I won’t knock down the good thing too much.

I had harbored some fears that The Force Awakens might turn out the way that JJ Abrams other reboot efforts, with the Star Trek franchise, had worked out, and I’m quite happy that he has delivered something that stays true to the original while also being different. The relative merits of how good that in itself is, I have already mentioned, and don’t want to dwell on overmuch. I’m just happy, in the end, that an effort was made.

The general response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been 99% positive. As of writing, the movie has already crossed the $525 million global box office collection level. People are loving this. The release of a Star Wars movie has always been an event since the first sequel came out and this movie crossed all those barriers. I mean, just look at how big of a global phenomenon this movie really was. There was a special premier event for the movie right here in UAE, at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and it sure was a glitzy night there.

Star Wars Poster

I am pretty excited that we finally have a new Star Wars trilogy in the works. I’m happy that it has received so much critical and commercial success. I’m kind of positive about the future of the universe. I’m saddened at the steps that have been taken to kick out all the old lore. I’m disappointed in the pandering fangasm over the old movies in the new one. I’m devastated that Han Solo is dead. In reality, my list of all the things that the movie does wrong, from my point of view, is a long list indeed. I mean, I can go on about how I find it silly that so much hype was built around Leia Organa being referred to as General Leia instead of Princess Leia and how the movie completely overlooks her having been one of the first Chiefs of State of the New Republic, and so on. But I don’t want to rant more than I already have.

My wife enjoyed the movie much more than I did, though her exposure has only been to the six movies. She’ll be watching The Clone Wars soon enough and I’m pretty damn excited to be sharing my love for Star Wars with her. And I’m happy with that. In the end, that is what it all comes down to for me.

May the Force be with you all.

Advertisements

Posted on December 22, 2015, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I am headed back to see it a second time tonight, my first impression of the movie was that it was a Star Wars movie but didn’t have the magic of the Lucas films. I enjoyed the new leads, especially Rey. Ford looked really old and I thought his death (long overdue in Ford’s opinion) could have been much better. I am hoping a second viewing fills in some gaps and I gain a newer prospective on things making me appreciate the movie more. I didn’t hate the movie but didn’t feel as though it was all it could be.

    Like

  2. Excellent review. Movie was a big disappointment to me. Better than the prequels, but as a 48 year old man who saw Star Wars on his 10th birthday in 1977 and who has grown up with this franchise, this film basically ripped off the 1977 classic in a multitude of ways. Throw in not one but TWO light saber hissy fits by an emo twat who is supposed to be the villain and I was rolling my eyes into the back of my head. What a disappointment.

    Like

  1. Pingback: Star Wars: Rogue One (Movie Review) | Shadowhawk's Shade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: