Passing The Torch: The Force Awakens Reviewed
THE SHORT, NON-SPOILER REVIEW:
The Force Awakens may not be perfect but with all the expectations it was laden with, how could it ever be? What it is is an entertaining ride that’s both heavily-nostalgic – linking to all the Star Wars saga movies that have come before – as well as introductory for a larger story. With a wonderful cast of new characters, it’s a movie that you can easily watch again and again.
FULL REVIEW, SPOILERS AHEAD:
So many First Order stormtroopers fly through the air in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In a way, it’s kind of symbolic. Take the old, tweak it, and send it flying. Kick things up ten notches when you can.
It’s no secret I’ve been looking forward to this movie for quite some time. But after my first viewing I wondered if I should review it as a movie in its own right or as part of the Star Wars saga. My decision? It has to be both.
There is no doubt The Force Awakens is a fun movie as part of the saga and on its own. In fact, it’s probably the first movie I’ve seen in a while that I can say I genuinely enjoyed the experience of watching it from beginning to end. Being among a crowd cheering, applauding, and gasping makes it that much better. JJ Abrams and company whisk you away and it wasn’t until the credits rolled (and subsequent viewings) that I found myself laden with questions.
Which brings me back to the flying stormtroopers. For everything I accepted or let slide in the moment, I later found myself wondering why these filmmakers went to such great lengths to recreate the overall look of Star Wars from the Original Trilogy – from using the same lens filters, making a point of using many practical effects, and creating a similar gritty, lived-in environment – only to soup up weapons and powers so that beings get flung through the air repeatedly in a manner that seems so out of place with the otherwise achieved aesthetic. It’s not just the stormtroopers and their apparently useless armor though. It’s more about committing to an aesthetic and then glaringly throwing it out in certain moments to heighten the intensity or what have you.
One of the first times we see this kind of visual left turn in The Force Awakens is with Kylo’s freezing ability. It’s an interesting power and something we haven’t seen before in the galaxy far, far away. The way it’s filmed definitely isn’t either. Maybe it’s because today’s audiences want everything bigger and better and more in-your-face. But new abilities don’t bother me. It’s that I can’t help but think about the way those moments are approached disconnect with the prevailing visual language. Despite all that, the costumes and sets are unquestionably Star Wars and I’m glad there are books and still images that let us linger longer to take them in after the movie rushes by some of them so quickly.
Lucasfilm definitely has an unusual balancing act on its hands. 30 years of fandom, multiple generations with varying levels of interaction with and entry points into the saga all buying their tickets with their own sets of expectations of what a new Star Wars movie should be. Then there’s all the potential new fans with differing knowledge levels thanks to pop culture. If anything it’s important to keep in mind that this movie needed to be a bridge for all those people. And it is.
Upon writing this review, I’ve seen The Force Awakens five times in four different formats. After the initial intake, it was easy to start mapping the familiar elements. Poe Dameron placing this movie’s McGuffin in the droid BB-8 is not that unlike Princess Leia giving R2-D2 A New Hope’s McGuffin. Similarly our hero and his/her mentor enter a cantina seeking a under-the-radar transport for the droid and its McGuffin. The bad guys have a super weapon and they’re pointing it at the good guys’ base of operations.
Beyond the similarities to A New Hope, there are also elements of the prequels and The Empire Strikes Back. Whether this is problematic or not will depend on the individual viewer. I will say I was somewhat surprised by how much of these sometimes flipped but recognizable pieces were in The Force Awakens. That came in part due to words out of JJ Abrams’ own mouth. In May 2015 a Vanity Fair interview included this from Abrams: “We used to have more references to things that we pulled out because they almost felt like they were trying too hard to allude to something.” He must have meant references to what happened in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens because I can’t imagine a version of this movie with even more references to the stories that came before it. It’s not astonishing to have similar beats from including a Hero’s or Heroine’s Journey. I expected some parallels, but not quite this level of mash-up.
And yet it works – all of it. Okay maybe not all of it, but a lot of it. I barely noticed the music during the first viewing, which was strange because it can be an important part of storytelling with film. The soundtrack grew on me over time though with “March of the Resistance” becoming a stand-out. Based on information from new Star Wars books it seems some edits to the film were responsible for making the political situation unclear. Once I read about it and the situation with Hosnian Prime, I could see it better in the film. But without those extra sources the scale of the powers at play and the weight of destruction from Starkiller Base are difficult to fully appreciate if not altogether lost.
Consistently troublesome though is the scene with the rathtars. Not only could I not discipher at first if they were saying raptors or Reptar or reptiles, but that whole giant freighter sequence messed with the movie’s pacing while both feeling and looking like they stepped into some other movie temporarily. (I’ve heard both Guardians of the Galaxy and the Abram’s Star Trek). The effects don’t mesh very well. It’s way goofier than anything else in the film to boot. Star Wars can get fairly goofy too so that’s saying something. Did they feel it’s not Star Wars if at some point you’re not being threatened by a many-armed or tentacled creature while also dealing with a bigger threat from some bad guys (see Attack of the Clones, A New Hope, & Return of the Jedi)? It’s without a doubt my least favorite part of the movie. Yet somehow it still contains some of my favorite lines. Yes, I know –
“Tell that to Kanjiklub.”
For the most part the dialogue is fitting and Star Wars familiar. The short lines. The pithy reactions. And it’s funny. Characters leave hints at a larger galaxy and history as just that. After our third viewing, my companion and I spent part of a car ride coming up with Kanjiklub’s back story. It doesn’t matter to The Force Awakens where Kanjiklub came from, but that’s part of the fun of Star Wars.
As fun and funny as The Force Awakens is, the two greatest sources of joy for me in this movie come from the new characters and the passing of the torch. If you read the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books, you may be familiar with the fact that it took roughly twenty years to metaphorically tell the next generation their time had come to take the lead. Leia may be the General of the Resistance but our new characters are introduced, prove their metal, and allowed agency and room to grow all in one movie.
The cast that forms the new leads are all earnest and solid. Rey is so many things that so many of us look for in a Star Wars hero and Daisy Ridley has no problem holding her own among this fantastic cast while showing us the power of strength, compassion, self-confidence, and vulnerability. Her and John Boyega both have great timing and make a splendid on-screen team. Boyega brings humor, urgency, and a bit of a Han Solo streak to his portrayal of the former Stormtrooper FN-2187. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is more than a hotshot pilot. He’s a good leader and shows a kindness that matches his dedication to his cause. Plus his droid, BB-8, is a delight and feels so very real. Maz Kanata was a surprise favorite. I was leary about a CGI character who looked like a talking orange when a tiny version of her appeared on the theatrical poster. But not only is the animation stellar, Lupita Nyong’o’s voice and physical performance gives the character such charm, depth, and wisdom.
When it comes to our villains I was a bit disappointed Captain Phasma was more of a plot device than an actual character, but since Kathleen Kennedy has mentioned Phasma will be in Episode VIII I’m willing to hold out hope for her potential. The rivalry between General Hux and Kylo Ren is intriguing. Domhnall Gleeson and Adam Driver have a dynamic that provides a nice counter to Boyega and Ridley’s. As far as bad guys go, Gleeson’s Hux leans more towards a stereotypical villain who believes 100% in everything he does. Meanwhile Kylo Ren is broader, facing an array of emotions and waging an internal battle to convince no one more than himself that he’s doing well on his path.
Unsurprisingly, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still feel very much like the Han and Leia we knew except with 30 more years of galaxy-weariness hanging on their shoulders. They both get an extra gleam in their eye when they share the screen too. Han’s death may not be what I ever imagined for how he’d go, but it serves the story in multiple ways and fits in with a man trying to do the best he can to do right by the people he cares about. Watching the loss hit Leia manages to hit even harder than the event itself. And while Luke plays a role throughout the film, Mark Hamill really doesn’t. My initial impression of his screen time was that he came off creepy but I think that’s more the fault of a series of shots that linger far too long.
As the credits roll, The Force Awakens is not a perfect movie, but it is a fun adventure that bridges the old with the new, can serve as an entry point to the saga, and sets up what will conceivably be a greater story to tell. It’s a tale of the power of kindness, stepping into the scary unknown, and having hope for the days ahead. And that’s something we all could use in our lives.
The Force Awakens was the final entry for Strange Age of Tomorrowland World Awakens: Kay’s Top Ten Movies to See in 2015.
You can hear more about my thoughts on the cinematic event that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Hyperspace Theories as well as the next episode of Nerd Lunch.
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