Movie Review: The Force Awakens

Was the Force dozing off in between films? Why does it need to awaken?

Like many, I was initially excited when I heard that Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise. I saw what they did with Marvel’s properties and enjoyed those well enough. Then my expectations fell when J.J. Abrams was set to be the director. I have seen what Abrams has done and I got a big, “Meh,” from it. My expectations were lowered when I saw Star Trek Into Darkness.

In some ways, my concerns were realized. The film, on a technical aspect, is not bad. It is not great, though. I’d call it serviceable. The writing is solid, the direction is competent, and the effects… are actually pretty damn good. There is a distinct lack of imagination, though.

There are people with huge hate-ons for the prequel trilogy. I imagine that the people who hate the prequel trilogy will enjoy The Force Awakens for not falling into the same pitfalls. It is certainly not the embarrassment that the prequels were.

The opening scroll explains that Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the Empire’s remnants have become the First Order. There is a new Republic with a senate in place. Oh, and for some reason, there is a Resistance that fights against the First Order. The Resistance seems to be somehow related to the Republic but the exact nature is not explained.

From there, the plot closely mirrors that of A New Hope. A roguish resistance member obtains critical information that needs to get to the good guys. He leaves the intel with a cute marketable droid and sends him away while enemy Stormtroopers led by a tall guy in a black cape arrive to steal the intel. The droid rolls across a desert planet and finds a Force-sensitive protagonist. They then get into space to try and get the intel to the Resistance. The mentor to the new characters dies to the guy in black. Oh, and the bad guys have a huge honking superweapons that destroys planets. Only this one destroys more planets. And the good guys find a way to blow it up.

The names are different. The droid is BB-8. The Death Star is Starkiller Base. Darth Vader is Kylo Ren. Tatooine is Jakku. But the plot is essentially the same. There is not a lot of new creativity in this film. This must be why the promotional trailers avoided giving away the plot. They were afraid that the audience would criticize it. And for good reason.

That is not to say that the film is terrible. There are a lot of things in this movie that I really like. I really enjoy the first twenty minutes or so that establishes Rey. We see a number of scenes with very little dialogue that establishes how she lives. We see her scavenge scrap from a wrecked Star Destroyer and trade her findings for meager meals. Seeing another desert planet is kind of tiring after seeing Tatooine so many times but that is a minor nitpick.

Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, who is a roguish pilot with a good sense of humor. I liked his performance on screen but they get rid of him some twenty minutes into the film. It initially seems like he dies but then they bring him back later for some reason. Apparently so they could show off his black and orange X-wing.

John Boyega plays Finn, a Stormtrooper who switches sides to the Resistance because killing innocent civilians does not sit well with him. Finn’s role in the film is not as defined as the other people’s roles. He initially seems like the new main focus character. We see him wield Luke’s old lightsaber and so we think that he is going to be the new Jedi for the film. But then Rey takes up the lightsaber and it is established that she will be the new Jedi. I guess that Finn will be an official Resistance member in the next film.

Kylo Ren is one of the more interesting characters in this film. It is established early that he is Han and Leia’s son and was one of Luke’s pupils. But for unexplained reasons, he turned to the dark side and killed a bunch of people. Luke bugged off to brood about his failure, hence why he is missing. Kylo Ren joined the first order and is like a whiney and more emotional Darth Vader. There is certainly a reason for him to be emotional but I wish I understood his motivation better.

Harrison Ford still has it as Han. …A pity that he will not be around for more. I expected that if anyone were going to mentor the new blood, it would be Luke. I’m certain that Skywalker will turn up in Episode VIII.

Gwendolyn Christie and Andy Serkis are underused. Their characters to little that is important and I imagine that they will be around in Episodes VIII and IX where they will have bigger roles.

The effects are noteworthy. There is less reliance on CGI and more emphasis on puppetry and people in suits. This makes it look more in line with the original trilogy. However, there are no wipes that transition from scene to scene like in the other six movies. I know that is a minor thing but it makes Episode VII feel less like a Star Wars film.

The Force Awakens also has good comedic moments. In fact, I say that this film has the best comedic timing out of any Star Wars film. Most of this comes from BB-8. The way the little soccer ball gives a thumbs up is one of the cutest things in the world. Finn and Rey also have excellent chemistry between each other.

Aside from the good performances and excellent effects, there is a lot that is lacking from the film. As mentioned, there is little that is inventive. That should have been obvious after seeing what Abrams did with Star Trek. Did he want to expand upon Star Trek’s lore and mythology to create something new and interesting? No, he just retreaded material and characters that have already been explored for decades, now. It’s like he is really envious of other people’s toys and wants to play with them instead of making his own thing.

There are very few new spaceship designs. We still have X-wings and TIE fighters. Granted, the X-wings and TIEs look a little different but only upon scrutiny. The Millennium Falcon is still kicking around. One of the things that I liked about the prequels were that they showed us something new. There were new aliens, new spaceships, and new worlds.

One odd thought is that I felt very little emotional investment in this film. Maybe that is because of the score. John Williams turned out a lame performance this time. There should have been really intense and moving music during the lightsaber duel at the end and when Starkiller Base is destroyed. There should also be some concern for the people that were slain when Starkiller destroyed those planets but there is barely any reaction to it.

The environment and worlds are not as interesting to look at. We are introduced to yet another sandy desert planet, only this one does not have the interesting rock formations that Tatooine had. The surface of the Starkiller Base looks interesting. It has a snowy forest, which has not been done in Star Wars before, but there is little time to appreciate it or expand it. The same goes for a natural rock formation at the very end.

There are a lot of niggling questions that need answers and the film does not provide them. For instance:

1. Where did the First Order come from?
2. What is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance? Is the Resistance the Republic’s military?
3. Why did the Starkiller Base destroy those planets in particular? What was the point?
4. What were Kylo Ren’s daddy issues with Han? Did Han not take is son to enough ball games or something?
5. Why is Rey on Jakku? It is hinted that she was abandoned there but for what reason?
6. Where does Rey’s unnatural affiliation with the Force come from?
7. Why did R2-D2 activate then at the end to provide the missing piece of the map?
8. And if R2-D2 had the map then why did the Resistance not obtain it before?

I am certain that there is some explanation to these questions in expanded material. But I still call foul because none of them are answered in the film. The answers are not even inferred. If there had been some scene like in the Death Star’s meeting room then that would be appreciated. As strange as it sounds, I really want a special edition of this film in which there is more exposition to explain all of these discarded details. It seems like Abrams is too afraid to tell but cannot convey enough by showing.

If this were not a Star Wars film, I doubt that it would be remembered. It is, however, a Star Wars film and that means that it holds a place in geek pop culture. I am curious to see how this film will age along with the others. Will it be seen of as fondly?

I hate to say this, but I have to rank The Force Awakens below Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith in terms of memorability. It is objectively a better film but speaking personally, this one left me wanting. Yes, it is better made but sometimes, that is not enough.

…Still better than Attack of the Clones, though.

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