STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS REVIEW
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
FIRST ORDER DATA FILE:
Director: JJ Abrams
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams (Based on characters created by George Lucas)
Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley
Certificate: PG-13 /12 A
Run Time: 2 hours 10 mins approx
Disney /LucasFilm /Bad Robot
30 years later. The Rebels are now The Resistance. The Empire is the First Order. Name changes aside: it’s business as usual. Or IS it? The Galaxy appears at once changed and essentially the same. Past victories have been for nothing. Defeats of darkness were merely momentary and never secured a ‘happily ever after’. But a Storm Trooper called Finn (Boyega) will rebel against his masters; a space scavenger named Rey (Ridley) is finding new purpose in life and together they will face and fight a new evil. They are helped by the galaxy’s original and best hero for hire, Han Solo (Ford). The adventure continues…
THE FORCE AWAKENS is a tough film to review objectively, by its very nature. Such is the weight of expectation attached and monumental hype that surrounds and binds us all to this event movie. It has milked every level of nostalgic yearning and optimistic hope for old stories being continued in new guises. We have also been promised a return to ‘old school’ story telling and film making, with familiar faces united to new talents in a bid to ensure we all get what we want.
Is that objective achieved? Absolutely, yes. This is definitely the movie you all wanted to see yet never received with those pesky ‘prequel’ films a decade ago. It’s a fun, well executed, cleverly written and intricately crafted piece of film making. But is it DARING? Are there any REAL surprises, with or without ‘spoilers’? Does it make the heart and soul soar with joy, wonder and genuinely earned love and hope? I’m afraid not.
Sorry. It’s a GOOD film as action adventure popcorn romps go. It’s a highly polished and competent tribute / introduction to and summary of the STAR WARS brand. That’s about it. Allow me to explain. As with the film’s characters, I shall try to balance the dark and the light.
Let’s start with what came before. Yes, we KNOW: lots of you hate the prequels yet LOVE the ‘original’ STAR WARS. But both of those series have merits. What the originals lacked in cutting edge CGI (I do NOT count those ‘special edition’ endless tweaks), they made up for in heart and soul. What the prequels lacked in coherent screenplays or romantic spark, they more than compensated for through a visual spectacular of daring innovation and a fidelity to their own fans’ loyalties on backstory etc.
The common denominator : risk taking, in service of a distinctive vision. George Lucas showed an ownership of a storyline and universe that he created autonomously, albeit with strategic help from allies (writers, artists, directors) and tributes and homages to previous generations’ beloved bedtime stories and cinematic landmarks. A fantasy for children and families but no doubt designed as love letter to the potential of the cinematic medium (ie you graduate from Star Wars to Godfather /Apocalypse Now and the like: heck, Lucas even based Han Solo ON Francis Coppola!).
THE FORCE AWAKENS alas pays tribute almost solely to ..well..STAR WARS. That models JJ Abrams’ unique ability to revitalise old franchises, whilst providing very little that is truly original, visionary or substantial. This feels like yet another film designed and made via committee.
On the one hand, the script and visuals do echo what worked so well before, whilst cleverly avoiding the often dull and bland ‘expanded universe’ stories that previously filled fan wish gaps between the original trilogy and what might be happening in a galaxy far away further down the road. Great. Well done! Give the team a medal for consumer focus.
Except it’s just not organic. It’s ironically JUST as lacking in emotional engagement as the unfairly maligned process behind the prequels. Did they watch the Red Letter Media Plinkett videos? I would not be surprised. Did they consult the discussion forum on TheForce.Net? Once again..makes sense..and yet: no real ‘spark’ of innovation or imagination?
One can almost hear the script meetings leaking into the narrative while watching this film. ‘OK We NEED Han Solo in this. Where would he BE now? What’s he ABOUT?‘ Etc. Now: all credit to JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan: they DO get it very ‘right’ and with EVERY character. But WHY? And HOW? There’s no clear endgame or purpose in sight here.
It’s like seeing a well made piece of furniture from IKEA. Sure, you can use it, sit on it etc and it won’t fall apart instantly. It just lacks any kind of distinction. YOU are helping to assemble the cinematic kit here from your own memories, doing the work for the filmmakers. And that kind of feels like being taken for a mug: with commercially packaged cynicism ripping off your nostalgia whilst disguising itself in a glow of childish optimism. One longs for the slightly wonkier product that almost falls apart but nonetheless has innate VALUE in its attempts at original design.
What hurts doubly is that I do NOT believe the filmmakers are simply on a cash grab here. This IS a product of genuine love for the series. They just don’t ‘get’ that such qualities are only half of what makes genuinely satisfying movie experience. Even in a ‘franchise’ picture.
Think George Lucas himself and his collaborations with Steven Spielberg (cf INDIANA JONES: another classic hero played by Harrison Ford..him again). Yes, they echo genres past from RKO serials to Samurai and musicals. But they also added a new sheen, sparkle and innate magic of their own.
But Abrams (and to some extent other giants of today’s movie making like Chris Nolan with his good but dare one say over-revered Dark Knight series) simply pay homage to styles past and well..that’s about it. And no it’s a NOT a new spin to show us how a technology is made or a hero learned a skill etc.
We all saw STAR WARS when we were kids (yes, Simon Pegg and Kevin Smith: not just you guys). Great. Bonne! But if given custody of that franchise like Abrams and co are here.. then surely we’d want to do something fresh AND honour the mythology? Or is that too much to ask for today? Apologies if so but what a shame.
No ‘new hope’ just old riffs replayed. Or worse still, given a new lick of paint called ‘gritty’ (most overused word in current cinematic landscape by the way). And yet, ‘gritty’, this film is (see what I did there?). You see BLOOD. In a STAR WARS film! And massacres. And one melodramatic murder that leaves a nasty aura of pervasive gloom, neither truly paid off nor redeemed. Do NOT take young children to this. Adults: prepare to shed a tear and feel knots in your stomach for THAT scene. You have been warned.
Notice my criticism there is meta-textual rather than substantial. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with THE FORCE AWAKENS. You WILL enjoy it on many levels. This is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time. The jokes work very well indeed: natural in pace, timing, character and context and never at the expense of genuine tension.
There is a palpable human element in each character: both heroes and villains have an arc that is logical and clear in objective and execution. The acting is uniformly superb. John Boyega is a star. Seriously: the kid owns every scene he is in and is an asset not only to this new series of films but to cinema in general. ANY casting director that EVER turned him down? You are an idiot. Go away and rethink your life. We will watch John’s career with great interest!
Daisy Ridley: oh Daisy, you are beautiful! Graceful, warm, wonderful. The new Keira Knightley. Domhnall Gleeson is a revelation. Interestingly, his is a performance unaided by masks, prostheses or special effects and yet he is by far the most menacing and commanding of the bad guy contingent here.
Gwendoline Christie is just a voice behind a mask but her towering presence is felt and we want more (think an even bigger Tilda Swinton with even more authority and bingo that’s her). Oh and look out for at least one Storm Trooper that should be an anonymous extra but that gait, vocal pattern etc..well they are familiar (I think this Trooper’s code MIGHT be 007).
So it’s an ensemble piece. And yet..this IS Harrison Ford’s film. He does appear to be using this as a warm up for one last crack at the Indiana Jones whip (in some scenes he lapses from Han to Indy in gesture). But he is as vital, funny, grumpy, charming, cool and charismatic as ever. Age HAS wearied him; some shots and lighting shades are kinder than others. But it’s a pleasure to just see Harrison back in the genre that crowned him a star, especially after such an erratic few years of recently wasted box office potential.
The script in effect gives us the mini Han Solo spin off we always wanted and credibly extends his story line beyond the original films without overstretching the rules of basic character coherence. Han has both progressed and regressed; moved on yet stayed the same; aged naturally but preserved his devil may care, knight in shining armour meets pirate rogue sensibilities. And there is no other actor alive that could pull off such an essentially synthetic character collage, whilst making it feel completely natural and endearing.
The great acting on display ensures the film is always watchable, even when the pace lags occasionally or it becomes unclear which Maguffin is being chased. If your attention span does wander beyond repair, fear not: this IS a visual treat and especially in IMAX 3-D. The special effects are truly special. And despite the basic familiarity of the designs, one cannot help but marvel at the new sense of texture and colour and resulting atmospherics to match.
The score is also engaging, haunting and evocative, somehow matching precisely the distinctive lighting shades and locations in each scene. So the collaboration between the great composer, John Williams and JJ Abrams as Director DOES work effectively. Abrams has an excellent ear for musical impact on a scene and in that sense he does have ‘the power’ of a Hitchcock or a Spielberg.
And yet, like the rest of the film, the music does not quite ‘take off’ or soar. One cannot hum these tunes in the shower the next morning. There is no Imperial March equivalent and its momentary echo in one scene simply makes one notice the absence of its power later on: a kind of accidentally musical metaphor for the film itself.
THE FORCE AWAKENS is accomplished as a piece of cinematic craftsmanship. That is JJ Abrams’ gift to the medium: dramatising his own love for the process of movie-making. But that’s NOT the same as providing a self contained and genuinely inspiring, consistently and organically FUN, evenly toned, well defined genre film.
It’s a solid tribute to STAR WARS in the same way that a young romantic writes a love letter to the object of their affection whilst failing to provide an independently brilliant piece of poetry. You can SEE the love for the series; you can FEEL that passion, even. But it’s NOT enough to create a NEW, fresh, original or even purely nostalgic joy ride that can entertain and inspire EVERYONE in quite the way the original films did.
Sometimes imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery and it MIGHT have been better to leave things with the seemingly happy ending of RETURN OF THE JEDI; passing the fantasy action genre baton to the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXIES, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEANS and ever assembling AVENGERS. Abrams’ own, excellent new take on STAR TREK could also make a claim to the adventure/ fantasy throne. But STAR WARS is here to stay and partly because we WANT it to. And hope does indeed spring eternal for future episodes, notably Colin ‘JURASSIC WORLD’ Trevorrow’s take on the material in a few years’ time.
The Force IS with this movie. It just does not burn as brightly, strongly or as distinctly as it perhaps could or should. It’s a victim of the success of its own brilliant hype. The trailers were all mini movies and events in themselves. The marketing campaign started even earlier than that: arguably with the simple statement that STAR WARS was ‘back’, when DISNEY purchased the product from LUCAS-FILM back in 2012.
We have been discussing, writing about and indeed MAKING this film in our own minds forever before it finally reached the Cinema. The speculation kept every click bait website and faux news podcast in business for a while. So now that the actual film is out, one cannot help feeling just the tiniest bit hollow after the event. That is not necessarily the fault of the film, but neither does it sweeten the slightly bitter pill of an inevitable disappointment.
Will you be entertained, amused and even moved by THE FORCE AWAKENS? Naturally, yes! Is it worth seeing: OF COURSE, as a momentous event. But is this TRULY unmissable cinema that leaves one wanting more and soon? Sadly, no. Neither remake nor reboot but somewhere uncomfortably in between the two and never truly its own beast, whilst lacking both the soul and substance of its predecessors on the whole. But if the force IS calling to you: let it in, sit back and enjoy the ride! 3 out of 5. Impressive. Just not a Jedi yet.
(some readers have already expressed strong views on this piece..as seen above..but I used the experience as a method exercise to improve my audition piece for the YOUNG HAN SOLO movie!).
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