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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

firefightDIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

REVIEW:

With 1977’s Star Wars (at the time simply titled “Star Wars”, later as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), writer-director George Lucas launched a pop culture phenomenon that has arguably never seen its equal (Harry Potter mania might be the closest runner-up), and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s The Return of the Jedi only solidified its status.  It’s hard to overestimate Star Wars‘ influence on the filmmaking industry, whether bringing sci-fi into the mainstream, hearkening back to the old-fashioned adventures of Flash Gordon and the like, bringing about a virtual visual effects revolution, spawning countless imitators and direct and indirect descendants, spawning a massive merchandising blitz and copious tie-ins with novelizations, animated series, highly collectible action figures, “Expanded Universe” fanfiction that took on a life of its own, and launching Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm.  One doesn’t have to be a Star Wars nerd to know phrases like “may the Force be with you” or know who Darth Vader is.  The long-gestating prequel trilogy, beginning in 1999, was anticipated with astronomical expectations no films could possibly have lived up to, and that and various questionable choices on Lucas’ part tainted the franchise for many fans, sparking a sometimes over-the-top fan backlash.  By his own admission, the vitriol from some disappointed fans turned Lucas off to all things Star Wars, and he eventually sold the property to Disney.  And now, a decade after the last of the prequels, the first Star Wars movie to have no involvement from George Lucas has brought the iconic text crawl across theater screens again.  Director J.J. Abrams (whose reboot of the Star Trek film series could be said to be a warm-up for this) makes his fanboy levels of love for Star Wars obvious (sometimes too obvious), but while an entertaining space fantasy adventure in keeping with the spirit of what Lucas originated, The Force Awakens falls somewhat short.  It’s better-crafted than the prequels, but lacks a certain spark that keeps it from ascending to the original trilogy’s iconic status.  Fans with open minds may find much to appreciate, but tempered expectations may lead to a more positive reaction.

It has been approximately 30 years since the destruction of the second Death Star and the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader over the Endor moon at the climax of The Return of the Jedi.  In the intervening years, a new Republic has been restored, but its survival is still fragile.  The remnants of the Empire have reformed into The First Order, which is determined to overthrow the Republic and restore Imperial dictatorship and, in typical fashion, has constructed a superweapon powerful enough to destroy planets (to up the ante, this “Starkiller” dwarfs the Death Star and can destroy not only a single planet, but an entire system in one blow).  Like the Empire, The First Order has a sneering Nazi-esque military commander, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and a Darth Vader wannabe, the masked Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who like Vader is taking his orders from a mysterious shadowy mastermind, Supreme Leader Snoke (motion capture performance by Andy Serkis), who is running the show from behind-the-scenes.  Both The First Order and the Republic are seeking the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has gone AWOL.  His sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the military leader of the Resistance, the military wing of the new Republic, has dispatched hotshot fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the remote desert planet of Jakku to obtain a piece of the puzzle to Luke’s whereabouts, but when Kylo and his troops attack, a series of events leave the map stored inside a typically cute little droid, BB8, who makes his way into the hands of teenage Rey (Daisy Ridley), a loner who ekes out an existence scavenging parts from old battleship wreckage.  Rey and BB8 also fall in with Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who defects from The First Order and promises to help get BB8 and his valuable information to the Resistance.  And along the way, circumstances will bring them into a fateful meeting with a familiar pair of space pilots….Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his right hand Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Han and ChewbaccaJ.J. Abrams’ fanboy levels of love for Star Wars are both a strength and a detriment.  The Force Awakens has the feel of a lifelong Star Wars fanboy being allowed to play in Lucas’ sandbox and running wild with glee.  Abrams pulls out all the stops.  John Williams, who returned to compose the score, comes up with a couple original pieces but liberally recycles his original score (not a bad thing, since the music in Star Wars is a crucial element).  The “Big Three” of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill reprise their roles thirty years later, although only Ford has major screentime, at least in this installment.  C-3P0 and R2-D2 make small appearances.  Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb make cameos.  The Millennium Falcon flies again.  We get some new ship designs, but there are still plenty of TIE-fighters and X-wings, and at least one Star Destroyer, not to mention an army of Stormtroopers.  Our new Vader-esque villain Kylo Ren is a literal Vader fanboy, with Vader’s partially burned and melted helmet in his possession.  The moving board game onboard the Millennium Falcon makes a cameo.  Some of my favorite bits, both in homage and world-building, were little touches.  Rey is introduced spelunking inside the cavernous hulk of a crashed Star Destroyer, and she lives inside a fallen AT-AT Walker.  Abrams emulates Lucas’ directing style, using wipes and irises as scene transitions.  The opening tag line “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” and the following text crawl is faithfully included, followed by the camera panning down through a star field.  Perhaps most importantly, Abrams obviously makes a serious effort to hearken back to the original trilogy.  While the prequels engaged in excessive CGI oversaturation and green screen, Abrams relies heavily on real locations, sets, and a blend of CGI and practical effects.  The result is that The Force Awakens “looks” much more like the original trilogy than the prequels ever did.  About the only “off” note struck by the effects work is the towering humanoid Supreme Leader Snoke.  He looks like exactly what he is, a CGI creation whose animation is too obvious.  In terms of realistic CGI characters, he’s not up to the level we’ve come to expect from examples like Gollum, the Na’vi, or the apes in the new Planet of the Apes films.  The other motion capture character, the diminutive Maz Kanata (performed by Lupita Nyong’o), is more effective.

On the other hand, the “homages” are laid on so thick that The Force Awakens feels derivative (the same complaint some leveled at Abrams for Star Trek: Into Darkness borrowing too heavily from The Wrath of Khan).  Many plot elements and narrative beats are slightly tweaked riffs of ones from the original trilogy, in particular A New Hope.  Our heroine’s homeworld Jakku is a remote desert planet that might as well be Tattooine.  The cute little beeping droid BB8 is a close cousin of R2-D2, and like R2-D2, he wanders into our hero(ine)’s hands with vital information in his possession.  We have new equivalents of Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Emperor Palpatine in Kylo Ren, General Hux, and Supreme Leader Snoke.  And once again, the climax involves X-Wings attacking a planet-destroying superweapon minutes away from firing on the Resistance base.  Sound familiar?  That’s because it is.  In fact, the entire movie, at least in the broad strokes, is essentially a reworked version of A New Hope.  In fairness, there are details that take things in different directions, but between this and Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams isn’t winning points for originality.  In Abrams’ defense, stepping into the director’s chair inhabited by George Lucas for every other Star Wars episode was surely a daunting prospect, and especially after the fan backlash against Lucas himself, it’s reasonable to imagine Abrams being afraid of straying too far from a proven formula, but there is a fine line between respectful homage and thinly-veiled recycling, and The Force Awakens crosses it a little too much.

There are other elements that work and don’t work.  An interlude with two racially-stereotyped pirate gangs (one led by a thickly-accented Irishman, the other a subtitled Asian) and ravenous alien monsters loose onboard could have been cut without changing anything about the movie except a slightly slimmer runtime and one less superfluous scene (that, and the monsters bear a suspicious resemblance to the one that chased Kirk on the ice planet in 2009’s Star Trek).  Various plot elements are thinly-explained, including the whole set-up of the Republic/Resistance versus The First Order.  There are surprise revelations about both Rey and Kylo Ren, but a key mystery about Rey’s character will have to wait to presumably be revealed in Episode 8.  Also left waiting are fans wanting to know anything about the mysterious new Sith Lord stand-in, Supreme Leader Snoke, who appears in three brief scenes as a massive hologram to ominously intone some Emperor-esque pronouncements.  While some of this is forgivable considering this is only part one of a new trilogy, it also leaves The Force Awakens feeling in some ways like an incomplete film that leaves some tantalizing questions unanswered or ambiguous at best.  On the positive side, there is no cringe-worthy element like Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks, nor any abjectly bad performance on the level of Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen.  The dogfights are well-executed, albeit too short and staying mostly as background eye candy.  The best involves TIE-fighters pursuing the Millennium Falcon through the innards of the crashed Star Destroyer.  There’s a cool shot where Kylo Ren telekinetically freezes an oncoming blaster bolt and leaves it hanging suspended in midair.  The movie’s most powerful moment (anyone who’s seen it will know what I refer to), which occurs in the third act, is handled with an almost uncomfortable level of genuine tension and drama.  This plot element may be divisive among fans, but while Abrams otherwise plays it too safe, one has to respect the balls it must have taken to go through with it.  There is some corny on-the-nose dialogue, but this has always been a Star Wars staple, and there are no cringe-inducing stinkers like the “romantic” dialogue in Attack of the Clones.  The climactic lightsaber duel is not especially sophisticated (in fact, it’s almost clumsy and awkward, though one could argue this is appropriate considering it’s between a complete novice and an injured and emotionally unstable trainee), but it hearkens back to those in the original trilogy in emphasizing drama over flashy stunts.  There are a few surefire crowd-pleasing moments.  Just as Leonard Nimoy’s first appearance and recitation of a famed line in Abrams’ first Trek film gave Trekkies goosebumps, he achieves the same effect here with the first shot of the Millennium Falcon, the reveal of Vader’s helmet, and especially the closing epilogue, which is a moment to give fans chills.  Perhaps most importantly, the film overall captures far more of the original trilogy’s spirit of whiz-bang derring-do, which to many fans will come as a welcome breath of fresh air after the often laboriously-paced prequels.  At the bottom line, at least for the most part, this feels like a Star Wars movie, which means Abrams has cleared the most basic hurdle (and not an inconsiderable one).

Finn and ReyThe new characters  are likable, and at least on a technical level, it’s possible to make the case that the acting is more polished than in A New Hope, but at least in their introductory outing, our new band of fledgling heroes lack the larger-than-life iconic panache of Luke, Han, and Leia (perhaps an unfair comparison, as those three have had decades to germinate in the pop culture consciousness).  With the exception of up-and-comer Oscar Isaac (and to a lesser extent Adam Driver, previously best-known for his very different role on the comedy series Girls), they’re mostly cast with unknowns (at the time, Hamill, Ford, and Fisher were new faces as well).  The best of the bunch is Daisy Ridley, who proves herself worthy of obviously being our new budding central hero(ine), bringing Rey both vulnerable and tough sides, and doing a little butt-kicking, especially in the climax.  Her co-star John Boyega, who gives us the novel concept of a Stormtrooper with a conscience and a personality of his own, is adequate but at times a little too bumbling comic relief (Finn is awfully full of one-liners for someone brainwashed as a soldier since childhood).  Oscar Isaac is suitably cocky and dashing as the ace fighter pilot Poe, but his screentime is more limited.  Domhnall Gleeson goes all in with the “Space Nazi” trope, stalking around with villainous sneer firmly in place and relishing his big moment, in which he delivers an unsubtle Hitler-esque speech to assembled formations of stormtroopers, where he screams at the top of his lungs, until he’s practically foaming at the mouth (quite the switch from his affable dork in About Time).  Adam Driver is substantially more intimidating with his mask on than with it off, but that’s kind of the point.  Kylo Ren is introduced as a Darth Vader 2.0, but as the film goes on, he is revealed as a wannabe trying desperately to step into shoes that are too big for him, insecure in his power and throwing childish temper tantrums when thwarted, and more tortured than we expect from a Star Wars villain (not usually exactly masterpieces of three-dimensional characterization).  In fact, he’s a lot like Anakin/Vader was in Revenge of the Sith.  The female stormtrooper commander Captain Phasma is embodied by Game of Thrones‘ hulking warrior woman, the 6’4″ Gwendoline Christie, and gets a cool costume, but gets nothing to do besides stalk around looking bad-ass and then go out like a chump.  Those anticipating more from Phasma (who was heavily marketed in promotional material) are in for disappointment.  Hopefully she’ll actually do something in Episode 8.  Elder veteran thespian Max von Sydow gets a rather thankless opening cameo.  “The Big Three” of Hamill, Ford, and Fisher all appear in the movie, but only Ford has a large role.  Their presences help tie this in with the original trilogy, of course, but there’s something a little sad about seeing Carrie Fisher’s Leia in particular looking so old and worn-out.  Ford does a nice job of reprising a role he last played in 1983, recapturing Han’s old devil-may-care bravado tempered by the weight of the years and a key tragedy.  For an actor increasingly notorious for his “grumpy old man” demeanor (onscreen and off), and a series of bored, autopilot “performances”, it’s a relief that Ford has brought his A-game here.  In fact, this might be some of his most enthusiastic acting in years (maybe since the last time he reprised a long-dormant iconic character, Indiana Jones in 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).  Anthony Daniels is still the man beneath C-3PO’s costume, though Peter Mayhew, due to poor physical condition, shares the role of Chewbacca with Finnish basketball player Joonas Suotamo (not that anyone would know) and the also ailing Kenny Baker’s credit as R2-D2 is reportedly essentially in name only.  There are also a couple cameos, though none you’d know about without being told.  Star Wars buff Simon Pegg, who reportedly begged Abrams for a part, has an unrecognizable small role as an alien junk dealer Rey does some trading with on Jakku.  And listen closely to the voice of the Stormtrooper in Rey’s interrogation scene; if it sounds familiar, that’s because the unseen face behind that Stormtrooper helmet is Daniel Craig (composer Michael Giacchino also played a Stormtrooper, not that anyone would know).  Sharp-eyed viewers may spot various J.J. Abrams alums among the Resistance officers (Greg Grunberg, Ken Leung), along with Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd.  On the First Order side, sharp-eyed viewers may glimpse Thomas Sangster and Hannah John-Kamen.

The Force Awakens is a mixed bag at the bottom line.  It’s better-made than the prequels but not the masterpiece some were hoping for, and relies more on nostalgic callbacks and recycled plot elements than coming up with something truly fresh and innovative.  It leaves several interesting directions the characters could go in moving forward (needless to say, the closing scene leaves everyone waiting to see what comes next with that part of the story, and the confrontations between Rey and Kylo have the makings of an intriguing rivalry), but feels incomplete.  If properly handled, it could serve as a promising foundation on which Episode 8 could build, but here’s hoping 8 goes further and a little more daring.

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