I didn’t plan on seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening day, let alone write a review about it afterwards, so this is a bit off topic. I couldn’t find a critical review searching Google, so I wonder if I maybe saw an alternate cut of the film (some hailing it as the best or near best Star Wars film ever)? As readers of the Original Prop Blog know, I am a huge Star Wars fan, and seeing the original in 1977 at 4 years old was a life-changing event. Collectively, the first three films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) are my favorite films of all-time. Didn’t care for much in the Prequels (loved the Maul lightsaber scenes the best). So how does the J.J. Abrams/Disney relaunch/update/merchandising empire measure up? It’s a mixed bag, honestly, and as the hours passed from seeing it unfold on screen (about 12 hours ago), it’s the negatives that stick with me most, though I mostly enjoyed it while it was happening, if that makes sense. I can’t say it’s a complete disappointment, since I went into it with low expectations; there are some excellent elements within the work (I’m also an Abrams fan). But overall, there are some serious flaws that leave me feeling a bit down on it, because they transcend this film and the characters work against the characters I have grown up to know and love to make them worse. I kept waiting for that rush of adrenaline to run down my spine, but it never came. Out of context from the original films, it’s a well-made, entertaining film. But context is everything. Search “disappoint” and #starwarstheforceawakens on Twitter, and “does not” or “doesn’t” always precedes “disappoint”, so maybe it is just me, or maybe people just went in willing it to be what they wanted.
Obligatory spoiler alert… don’t read any of the below if you’ve not seen the film – better to form your own opinions and be surprised.
Over the past few years as the film was being made, I’ve tried to steer clear of learning anything about it, feeling that if it is a great film, I’d want to be surprised as an audience member is supposed to be while watching a movie. I did not jump on the advance ticket buying bandwagon, and figured I’d go to the theater and check it out once the hype subsided.
As it so happens, I am in London this week, and on a fluke, I thought I’d look online last night and see if it was even possible to see it somewhere today. Shockingly, it was possible, and even better, they have theaters with assigned seating in the UK, so no waiting in line either. I got tickets for my wife and I for a 9:30 AM showing at Empire Leicester Square for one of their IMAX 3D presentations (this was also my first time seeing 3D in the theaters since Jaws 3D!). Seating was perfect, in that even being in the front row center, it is raised and set back a long distance from the screen, so no distractions from other members of the audience.
Getting to the movie itself…
This is a minor quibble, but it didn’t feel quite like a Star Wars movie sans the triumphant Fox fanfare in the beginning like in the old days.
As expected, there was an homage to the opening of A New Hope, with the starship shot from below filling the screen. On that note, Abrams was not as heavy handed with the replicating of themes/scenes/ideas/characters/etc as Lucas was with the (mostly terrible) Prequels. But at the same time, with this film and the Prequels and every other Star Wars IP (games, cartoons, comics, etc.), there is so much “Groundhog’s Day” business it gets to be distracting. Can’t we just do new, different stuff in the same Star Wars “world”? As a member of the audience, it makes me feel the powers that be think I’m dumb and need to be spoon fed the same over and over.
The good… I like the four main new characters (though already I have trouble even remembering their names): Rey (the desert girl), Finn (the ex-Stormtrooper), Poe (the pilot) and BB-8 (the droid).
Finn is the only truly original (creatively-speaking) character, with Rey being like a female version of Tatooine Jedi Luke and Han Solo, and Poe being like X-Wing Fighter Luke; BB-8 is like a cuter R2-D2. Honestly, Finn really saves the movie for me – he is the most human and most believable character. Like Jack in LOST, he is more of the character that the audience identifies with, I think.
I like the idea Poe, but his only problem is that he’s barely in the film. You really learn nothing about him. He has no character arc. He’s in the beginning as a reason to kick things off and get Finn involved (and give him a name) and then in the end come back to destroy the Death Star (really, for the third time? more on that later…). But other than that, there’s nothing. He serves to move the plot along, and fill in the “Luke blowing up the Death Star” bit (that “Groundhog’s Day” thing again). So a huge missed opportunity there. I would have made the Han/Chewie/Leia bits mere cameos and give Poe a chance to become a character in the film, rather than function as a cardboard plot point device.
So then there are the new villains… at the center of it all is Kylo Ren (which sounds like the name of a character in the Street Fighter videogame series, so I can never remember it – I always have to Google it – it’s a terrible name and makes me think of Barbie’s significant other… not so menacing). So it all starts out interesting with him… a mysterious, Darth Vader-like character who isn’t geriatric like Count Dooku (maybe an even worse name) in the Prequels. But I got sucked into the darkness of this character as this film started, and his seemingly-out-of-control but maybe-barely-in-control reactions when things don’t go his way. It was all developing nicely until… he removed his helmet.
Revealing a wimpy, completely not scary narcissistic Millennial asshole kid. Hayden Christensen v 2.0. From the looks of him, you could blow on him and knock him over.
This? This is supposed to be the new Darth Vader-like character? Ugh.
And what made Darth Vader so great (in part) was the mystery. So not only does the unmasking undermine all of that, then we learn… he’s Han and Leia’s son? WTF? Seriously? More on that in a moment.
Filling out the bad guy list… Some Emperor-like character who looks like he got passed over in the casting call for Lord of the Rings, and the ready-made Boba Fett-like character, Captain Phasma (another terrible name). Basically, a fancy, shiny Stormtrooper (but it’s a girl, just like the Luke character is also a girl!). We learn nothing about the Emperor-like character. I don’t know if they even say his name (if they did it went through one ear and out the other). So too much mystery can be a bad thing too, I guess, when you are just kind of lost as to who is destroying entire planets right and left.
And that’s the other thing… who exactly is this “First Order” (the new Empire… that “Groundhog’s Day” thing again)? What do they want? I mean, I get all of the over the top Nazi imagery and what not, but what motivates them? Or do we just assume it’s exactly like the Empire but just a different name? Do any of these people even know what they are fighting about anymore? What is their ultimate objective?
Consequently, the new Rebellion is now “The Resistance”. Again, there’s not much in the way of story going on here, other than replicating scenes and images of the Rebellion from the original films. Looks, it’s this or that character, but a lot older! Then Miles from LOST shows up as a complete distraction (I was waiting for him to start talking about the Dharma initiative).
So taking a few steps back, I guess an overarching theme is that it doesn’t matter what you do, the universe is fucked and will just keep repeating itself over and over, in spite of you best efforts, and good vs evil.
Which brings us to the plot… The First Order (like the Empire before it) created a Death Star-like planet (not sure if they bothered to name this), which they can use to destroy entire planets. The Resistance (like the Rebels before it) have to find a way to exploit a weakness to blow it up. Droid… plans… desert planet… young person destined to be a Jedi. Yadda yadda. And they do blow it up. And the young heroes watch an old one get struck down by a villain in black to inspire them to carry on in their fight against evil. It ends with a new hope…
All in all, as much as there might be new and different, The Force Awakens is pretty much A New Hope all over again.
I love that they cast unknowns for the key parts, so we don’t have any prior associations with them which helps with suspension of disbelief (damn you, Miles!).
Kudos for all of the proper practical effects. The film looked and sounded great.
There was ample action throughout, so no complaints all there.
I think my biggest problem with all of it – shockingly for me – is the bits with Han and Leia. Which is a shame, because circa 1983, after Return of the Jedi (which I loved as much as the first two; I’m not a retroactive hater like most of my generation), all I longed for was another Star Wars movie to see what happened with our heroes… Over 30 years later, and that is the huge disappointment, on so many levels.
The Han bits were mostly well-written and mostly well played, but it just didn’t “feel” on point to me. It was almost like Harrison Ford was playing a caricature of his character (certain moments reminded me of my least favorite movie of all time, Indiana Jones IV). But it’s really what was behind the character and how he was used that bothered me most.
But let’s get Leia out of the way first… I actually met Carrie Fisher at Comic Con a few years ago, and lets just say the chain-smoking while doing autographs style and vibe didn’t match up with my fond memories of how she appeared playing Princess Leia long ago. So that stuck with me, and I felt some of that in The Force Awakens, as reality kind of melded with her original character.
Leia didn’t serve much of a purpose in the film, other than to be there and have a few moments with Han. And those moments just didn’t work. Zero chemistry. These two were supposed to have fallen in love and had a child? Sorry, from what happened on screen, I just wasn’t feeling it at all. Which works against not just the new film, but the three original films. You wanted them to fall in love and live happily ever after, and instead, they are like some divorced, bitter couple that show up at the same soccer game to make appearances for their kids. Not quite the pirate and the princess fairy tale. Where’s Arnie Becker?
So getting back to that Death Star planet… so these nebulous bad guys decide it’s time to blow up a bunch of planets and kill billions of innocent people…
And not too much reaction from the heroes. Though one of the early scenes involved Rey deciding whether or not to sell BB-8 (to slave or not to slave); but a holocaust into the billions doesn’t seem to move people too much? Isn’t that a little weird?
In any event, Han and Leia’s son is part of the triumvirate that just killed billions of people (even worse than Anakin in the prequels suddenly deciding to cut a bunch of Boy Scout Jedi’s in training in half)… and Han and Leia talk about him like he got a tattoo without permission and maybe has a drinking problem, but they can still turn him around. Are you kidding me?
Not only does this make The Force Awakens a bit unbelievable and morally bankrupt, it desecrates the characters that fans of the original trilogy have lived with for decades. They were all about fighting evil. But I guess they look the other way when it’s their own kid? And Luke apparently helped to create a new Darth Vader, then runs away from this evil, that goes on to help kill billions of people? And collectively, these three heroes that helped save the galaxy from evil can’t collectively raise one kid without letting him turn into a new Darth Vader? I don’t buy it.
Going into the film, and knowing Han was in it, you had to know he was going to die, because he wanted to die in Jedi but George Lucas wouldn’t do it. But this is how you kill him off? Have him go up to his murderous, asshole millennial son and basically let him kill him? Again, it treads on the character at large. You would expect Han to go out in a blaze of glory, as a hero. Instead, he dies for no (good) reason, like a sappy idiot who can’t see evil staring him in the face. What a waste.
Chewie is allowed to let out a little emotion, but there’s not much “there” there… Leia doesn’t seem to care. No funeral. Nothing.
The Force Awakens is sure a cold universe that lacks empathy.
Really, the movie would be so much better if you just take Han and Leia out of it. Make Darth Millennial someone else’s kid. Or not a kid at all. At least not a petulant brat millennial. That works in Game of Thrones, but we had our fill of it in The Prequels.
So there was a whole lot that just didn’t work for me at all in The Force Awakens. That always brings out my sarcasm.
Other random thoughts…
Captain Phasma… so she’s like the SS in the Third Reich, and she’s going to roll over when someone merely points a weapon at her? Not buying it. And she’s this horrible villain, and they put her in the garbage chute?
I still don’t get the lightsaber handles lighting up… okay, it makes for an exciting trailer, but seems dumb.
I loved the scene with the escape on the Tie Fighter. That sequence was awesome. Well, the entire escape sequence. I wish the movie was more of that, with the new characters.
Is it just me, or does the universe feel really, really small?
R2-D2 going semi-dormant. That whole idea fell pretty flat.
Is it just me, or did C3-P0 become really unlikeable?
Who was the Obi-Wan guy killed at the start of the film? Were we supposed to have any idea who that was?
If Luke already ran away from the new Darth Vader that he helped to create, why is he such a threat to The First Order? He already ran away.
Given that, if Kylo Ren knows that Rey is a potential Jedi (that can read his mind with no training), wouldn’t it have made more sense to kill her when she was restrained in that torture chair, rather than worry about getting the plans to find Luke so Luke can’t train her to be a Jedi?
At the end of the film, why didn’t Rey kill Kylo Ren after defeating him?
I guess Rey is either Luke’s daughter or Kylo Ren’s sister (hence Han and Leia’s daughter). Why do these people lose their children so easily? Like not just at the grocery store, but they don’t even know what planet they are on?
Anyway, I guess this isn’t so much a proper film review, but a bunch of gripes, but I needed to write it to get it out of my head. Like I said, I did enjoy the film while it was happening, but “problematic” does not begin to cover the problems I’ve had reconciling character and story problems with the original trilogy of films created by George Lucas.
I think there was a lot of real magic with those original movies, and as talented and gifted as people may be, you can’t frequently recreate magic, as hard as you may try, and I think that is the case here.
Obviously, J.J. Abrams loves Star Wars and did his best to make a movie that serves a lot of purposes… to entertain, to make money, to create opportunities to make more money and more movies. I think the biggest problem I have with the film is with the characters and some of the writing and plotting. The casting, acting, and effects are all incredible. But there are some fundamental elements to the story that I just can’t work around and story is always at the crux of any film. I’d rather it took a hit on casting, acting, and effects than story. But suspension of disbelief and believable characters and action and logic come first.
And I’m not going to get into how every other commercial on television over the past two months has a Star Wars tie in. I get it, but remember when we’d at least get to see the movie before the franchise and characters were used to sell us stuff?