Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star wars the force awakens review episode vii logo jj abrams lawrence kasdan

And this is the new one. The film we’ve all been waiting for since 2013 when the Lucasfilm deal was first announced. The Force Awakens has, as I understand it, already broken several records with regards to pre-opening ticket sales, and I think it’s on track to beat Jurassic World as the biggest opening weekend of all time.

This review will, obviously, contain spoilers. They’re going to be fairly in depth in terms of an examination of the film, so beware of those. I don’t want to ruin Jar-Jar’s cameo appearance for anyone, and so on and so forth. The actual spoiler-y discussion begins after the read more jump; first up, I want to talk a little about my expectations and thoughts having gone into the film.

For a fairly long time, I was hesitant about the movie; my expectations were pretty low, and I was interested simply because it was Star Wars, rather than because I had any real or genuine expectations of legitimate quality. Over the course of the two year wait, though, and particularly in the last few months as new trailers began to be released, I began to get more and more excited. In the end, it was my Star Wars Retrospective rewatch that really got me immersed in this world again, and really looking forward to the new film.

So, as I was sat there watching the beginning of the film – the Lucasfilm logo appears, the music blares, the credits scroll – I ended up sat there with a great big stupid grin on my face.

And rightfully so.

Once again, I feel the need to stress – from hereon out, there be spoilers. If you are still reading at this stage, you’re an idiot, or you just don’t care. Regardless, make sure you know which you are before you keep reading.

Anyway.

The Force Awakens opens strong, with the attack on the village in Jakku. It serves as a great introduction to both Poe Dameron and Finn; rather effectively, we get to see the battle from Poe’s perspective, with the Stormtroopers doing all of these brutal things… before slowly moving across to focus on one of those Stormtroopers, with their conviction clearly wavering. This is, of course, Finn, who’s played by John Boyega, and he’s going to be one of our key focal characters for the rest of the film; after an extremely entertaining escape sequence, which does a great job of showcasing both Finn and Poe as characters, Poe Dameron gets a much more reduced focus. It’s a shame, to be honest; Oscar Isaac gives a great performance as an interesting character who has a lot of potential, and while I can understand the in-story reason for taking him out of the action, I do hope his role is bumped up a fair bit next time.

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Regardless, though, John Boyega as Finn is a perfect protagonist for this new movie. There’s a lot of heart to his character, and he has a great character arc; moving from First Order soldier to deserter, before eventually joining with the Resistance, and all because he has such a keenly tuned sense of right and wrong. I think Finn is, in fact, my favourite character across each of these movies; he’s a really compelling character, and John Boyega gives a great performance. I love the fact that he’s driven by a fairly simple desire to do what’s right, and by compassion for others; a fairly simple, small touch that was included, and I quite liked, was that at one point Finn is knocked out, and the first thing he says when he comes around is “Are you okay?”. His primary concern is Rey, and whether or not she’s alright. It’s a nice thematic thread which follows through the entire movie.

Rey, similarly, is a lot of fun as our other main protagonist. In many ways, she’s our Luke Skywalker analogue here; stuck on the desert planet, wanting to leave, before ending up on a strange adventure across the galaxy. Interestingly, though, there’s an added complication: she feels like she has to stay on Jakku, because of some familial obligation. She’s waiting for someone. It’s an odd little detail, added in presumably to build up to a reveal in the next movie, as we find out who her family are, and why they left her on Jakku. I’m guessing she’ll be Luke’s daughter, but perhaps they’ll surprise us.

Aside from that, though, Daisy Ridley gives an engaging performance as Rey. I really like her voice, actually. That’s an odd thing to pick up on, I suppose, but it stood out to me anyway. There definitely seems to be the basis of an engaging character here, and I’m looking forward to seeing her grow and develop across the next two movies. Certainly, Rey was a lot of fun to watch on screen, and her return will be welcome, regardless of whether or not we find out more about her background.

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I was also quite impressed by how the return of the Original Trilogy characters was handled, by gradually introducing them to the plot. We didn’t begin with Han or Chewie or Leia; first it was an X-Wing, then Stormtroopers, then the Millennium Falcon, and then Han and Chewie. By layering the reveals like this, it let each aspect have the opportunity to breathe, and have a much greater impact in its own right.

The Force Awakens also works, of course, as a showcase for the best of Han Solo – which is what you’d expect, really. They do a great job of reminding us of exactly what we loved so much about him in all the previous movies, and why Han Solo is such a cultural icon; it’s because he’s such a genuinely compelling and engaging character to see on the screen. It’s wonderful to see Harrison Ford back, and to get quite so many great scenes and fun lines. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan really make us fall in love with Han all over again, before – well, I’ll talk about that in a minute. The point is, then, that Harrison Ford’s appearance here really elevates the movie, genuinely adding to it’s strengths.

Similarly, it’s nice to see Leia, C3PO and R2D2 back, each in their various capacities. Honestly, I think C3PO’s appearance was my favourite of these three; it was a genuinely funny little segment, and I appreciated the efforts made to introduce some humour into these movies. As nice as it was to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia, I did have a few problems with the fundamental nature of her role here, so… we’ll talk about that in a moment, anyway.

star wars the force awakens review kylo ren adam driver ben solo reylo lightsabre jj abrams sith

One of the most interesting aspects of the new movie is our new bad guy, Kylo Ren. It’s a difficult thing to pull off for this movie – The Force Awakens is having to compete with Darth Vader, who is genuinely the best villain in movie history. Even the prequels never quite had that issue, given that they were the story of a young Darth Vader – here, now, we’re looking at a Star Wars movie that is almost entirely divorced from the story of Vader.

Whilst Kylo Ren isn’t quite on Vader’s level, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have managed to create the basis of a villain with a lot of potential to be explored in the future movies. They’ve written a villain who is genuinely conflicted, and Adam Driver has done an amazing of portraying this. Lines like “I can feel the power of the light calling to me” give the impression of the potential for an interesting examination of the dichotomy between the darkness and the light; for Kylo Ren, evil is something is aspires to, rather than something that comes naturally. He self harms throughout the final fight, constantly hurting himself in an attempt to tap into the dark side – Ren is demonstrably volatile, using his lightsabre to smash and destroy some display monitors as a result of some bad news, all in a pique of teenage rage. His instability is clear as well; even though he’s strong with the Force, it’s evident that this strength is not something he’s in complete mastery of. The creative team involved have managed to find a new angle from which to approach the idea of a force using bad guy, and I’m really excited to see where the story goes from here.

Of course, Ren’s identity was hotly debated before the beginning of the movie, with two theories starting to prevail. Quite a few people believed it could be Luke Skywalker (under the tutelage of Supreme Leader Snoke, also known as Darth Darth Binks)… but there was another. The other prominent theory was that Kylo Ren was, in fact, Luke’s former apprentice, and the son of Han and Leia. This was, of course, proven to be true. And then, of course, Kylo – or rather, Ben – eventually killed his father Han.

It was an interesting moment, but I’m not convinced of how well it was handled. The actual demise of Han worked very well (though I’d have preferred it if he had some final lines), and I think it’ll serve to emphasis the danger that Kylo Ren poses in later movies. I do think the actual reveal of Kylo’s identity could have been structured much better; the information is given across as little more than some throwaway dialogue, rather than built up as the seismic revelation it should have been. That is, I think, a bit of a failing on the film’s part – not a debilitating one, but certainly a notable one.

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That predictability, though, is something that hampers the film throughout. It’s two major moments were far from surprises – the identity of Kylo Ren, and the death of Han Solo, were both fairly obvious. Or at least, they were to me; the average movie goer isn’t going to have been sat theorising about the movie for months, considering whether Kylo Ren would be akin to a new Jacen Solo, or if Harrison Ford would finally have convinced them to let Han Solo die. So, in fairness, it’s difficult to honestly and legitimately argue that this is a serious fault or detriment to the plot.

No, the main issue with the plot is how derivative it ultimately proved to be. We’re watching a remake of A New Hope; the plot strays too far into nostalgia territory, and ends up dangerously close to being a perfunctory remake. We have something of a remixed collection of Star Wars’ greatest hits – a desert planet, an aerial battle over an ice planet, and even a brand new Death Star. It’s this last one that was, I’d argue, the worst – a huge superweapon was introduced, simply so that it could be destroyed in an essentially identical way to the original Death Star. There was little interesting to the concept – yes, it’s a planet, and yes, it drains stars, but so what? Essentially, all it is is a massive Death Star. They even make this comparison explicit within the story.

In fact, the only narrative purpose this Starkiller base serves is to destroy what appeared to be Coruscant; the new Republic has been destroyed, and our heros are reduced to a small group of ragtag soldiers with limited resources – the Resistance – fighting against a much larger and more powerful organisation, the First Order. Sound familiar? That’s because it is.

The Force Awakens is, in essence, hiding in nostalgia. For fear of alienating audiences in the same way the prequels did, they undid much of the development of the Original Trilogy to try and re-establish the status quo from A New Hope. I think that can only really be considered a mistake; the Empire and the Rebellion wasn’t what made Star Wars great, it was the struggle between good and evil. You don’t need to simply redress the originals to bring that back, particularly when it takes away the triumphant ending of Return of the Jedi. Leia’s role here, even though she’s a General rather than a Princess, is ultimately a regression.

I always kinda thought that the Yuuzhan Vong were a bit of a stupid idea – for those of you who don’t know, they’re aliens from another galaxy who, in the novels and EU, invaded some time after Return of the Jedi. They seemed to me to be too much of a departure from the Star Wars I knew, but I do think I appreciate them a lot more now – they were a new idea, and that’s important, it really is.

That lack of new ideas in The Force Awakens – in terms of the plot and general status quo, I mean – is a real disappointment. I do think the movie would have been strengthened had they approached it from a different angle; make the First Order the small, ragtag group this go around. Show that the new Galactic Alliance is struggling to succeed as a young intergalactic government. Emphasis the intimate, personal, small scale struggle caused as Ben Solo became Kylo Ren.

Just don’t give us reheated leftovers.

star wars the force awakens review milennium falcon jj abrams lawrence kasdan

Now, honestly, I really did enjoy The Force Awakens. It’s a stunning film, visually speaking – it looks amazing, moreso than any of the other Star Wars movies than preceded it.

And, even despite the issues I highlighted, the plot issues aren’t hugely noticeable whilst watching the film – JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and all the actors involved did such a genuinely compelling job with the character arcs throughout that the plot problems almost just didn’t matter. Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron are a great new trio for us to be introduced to; Kylo Ren is an intimidating villain with a lot of potential, and it wonderful to see characters from the original trilogy again.

The Force Awakens is, undeniably, better than all of the prequel movies. And certainly in some regards, it’s better than the original movies. Not in all aspects, though.

As a reintroduction to the franchise, The Force Awakens does a pretty stellar job. As a movie, it does a wonderful job – I’ve emphasised, all throughout this review, how genuinely fun it is to watch, and that’s true. Seeing this movie is a genuinely enjoyable experience, and I’d really recommend it to anyone who enjoys fun movies.

I’ll likely have a lot more thoughts on this over the coming week (obviously, I’m going to watch it again) but for now, this is essentially where I stand. A hugely enjoyable movie, with one fundamental flaw.

9/10

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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