Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
[Alert: Note, this review may contain spoilers. Though, I have done my best not to reveal critical plot points and only discuss the technical merits of the film as a whole. If you are interested in seeing this movie, you should stop reading now. I have also written a deeper dive critical plot analysis article separately from this review.]
Let’s just start by saying that I’m usually very critical towards films, just as I am towards any other technology, device or game. I also don’t review every film I see. I only review those films that I feel deserve a review and Star Wars: The Force Awakens does deserve a review. Let’s explore.
Disney and Lucasfilm and Star Wars
This is the first in a series of films to be produced by Disney in their newly purchased Star Wars franchise. How many total films that will be in this series is as yet unknown. However, I’d expect the current storyline to run at least 3 total films with The Force Awakens being the first in this trilogy. Why is this important? It’s important to understand the place of this film not only in relation to the past 6 films, but to future films that have yet been created. In other words, this film is only a small part in a larger story. So, even after seeing the film, there are still many questions unanswered… and this is as it should be for a first part in a larger set of films.
Star Wars Redefined
Star Wars is a much beloved series. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 set the tone for this series with iconic likable characters that have become a huge part of pop culture. Though, cracks did begin to appear as early as Return of the Jedi with George introducing the saccharine cuteness of the Ewoks in Episode 6. However, we could forgive George this one blemish in an otherwise amazing universe. Unfortunately, by episodes 1, 2 and 3, those beloved icons were no where to be found and the films ended up disappointing on so many levels. With unnecessary characters like Jar Jar Binks, wooden acting, badly cast child actors, horrible screen chemistry and the inclusion of a storyline about political satire that could bore your dog, we were less than enchanted with the prequel series by the end of episode 3. Though, I will admit that episode 3 was much better than episode 1 by a long stretch. In other words, the prequels set the bar pretty low for Star Wars films. That’s all in the past, thankfully.
With this newest episode, JJ Abrams has brought a film to the screen that is at once both fresh, new and exciting and looks and feels like that old pair of amazing fitting gloves that just never seem to wear out. In other words, Disney, Lucasfilm and J.J. should be commended on the restraint used in producing The Force Awakens and in keeping the universe look and feel fully intact. Also, it seems that someone kept JJ’s wild fantasies in-check and out of the film such as lens flare city and odd story changes that really wouldn’t have enhanced this franchise. Disney also managed to keep their disneyfication to a minimum. Keeping JJ’s fanciful, but unnecessary additions at bay and limiting disneyfication to a bare minimum has helped to solidify this film as easily one of the best for 2015. Though, BB-8 might have been a disneyfication.
This newest Star Wars installment has firmly set the tone for the things to come. Yet, the film is far from perfect.
The film opens identically to all other Star Wars films with the exception of the missing THX deep note (which was getting tired anyway) and the missing 20th Century Fox fanfare (this is Disney now, remember?). Though, it was also oddly missing the familiar Disney castle logo. There is little fanfare in the opening. More or less, it was just the same as all other Star Wars films. The film segues nicely into its first scene, but this is where the pacing is off. Instead of opening to a rousing battle scene or some other rush of action, blaster fire and lots of people or ships shooting one another, we are treated to a much slower paced opening. In fact, it’s so slow of a pace, for a short time I was beginning to wonder if it would ever pick up. No need to worry, it does.
Other than saying that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are all in the film along with Chewbacca, this film is about the new guard taking over the reigns from the old guard.. and that’s exactly what this film does. This is a transitional film. The cast is unknowns who do a decent job with their parts, but nothing spectacular. Though, I will say the on-screen chemistry between the new characters has yet to congeal. Not so much because there is no chemistry, but because there are few scenes were they are all actively together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. So, it’s difficult for me to judge the full chemistry between these actors as yet. They always seem to get separated within moments of coming together.
Stormtrooper Gone Bad
This is an interesting concept introduced into this film that has not been in previous installments. In previous Star Wars, whatever process the Empire had used to indoctrinate Stormtroopers seemed entirely solid and without question of loyalty after the process was complete. In The Force Awakens, the whole thread of indoctrination (and failure of said indoctrination) is explored and discussed explicitly and somewhat in-depth. I hope this concept makes a resurgence in later installments as a wider story arc. In fact, I would love to see it used as a linchpin in the entire destruction of the First Order and the Supreme Leader.
Questions and Answers
The Force Awakens both asks and answers old and new questions. One of them is the Stormtrooper Gone Bad motif. This is a new question that has yet to have a full answer. I’m anxious to see where that thread goes or if it’s just dropped. However, just as we have new questions, we have many old questions answered. Questions like “Did Leia and Han have a kid?”, “Where is Luke Skywalker?” and “What happened to Han Solo?”. There are many other questions answered in this film as well. Just as many questions were answered, there were just as many questions asked that have no clear answer. With The Force Awakens, JJ has perfectly straddled the line of balance between the answers to old questions with asking new questions. Questions we won’t get answers to until future installments. Because this is the first of many installments, it was inevitable that there would be cliffhangers and unanswered questions.
Death Star on Steroids
Yes, there is a Death Star story in The Force Awakens. In fact, like A New Hope and like Return of the Jedi, the Death Star makes a reappearance and on a much more grand scale. You’ll have to watch to find out what happens. Suffice it to say that this Death Star is far more destructive than anything ever built by the Empire. But, this isn’t the Empire. This is the New Order.. and likely if the New Order built one of these massive death machines, they likely built two or more of them. So, I’d expect to see another one or possibly a fleet of them in the next installments.
While I realize this applies to computers, it also applies here. JJ didn’t put anything behind a veil. It is what you see. Yes, there might be subterfuge at work that we won’t realize until later installments, but in this film people take off their masks so we get to see them. There is little to be hidden behind masks for a 3 film story arc to reveal. It’s all revealed right here, right now, which is immensely satisfying. Who really wants to wait 3 films to finally see someone peel off their mask or find out who is really behind it all? In this film, it’s all put right out there immediately. No hiding. Limited use of masks. No hidden identities. No cloak and veils. What you see is truly what you get.
Though, we’ll have to wait and see in the next installments exactly what ‘points of view’ changes have yet to reveal themselves… and yes, there are questions that have yet to be answered.
If there is anything here to fault of this film is its pacing. It starts out almost unbearably slow. Lots of scavenging scenes. Lots of random shots of conflicted moments of this failed Stormtrooper. An opening scene with the stormtroopers that while intended to garner some sympathy from the audience is mostly extraneous to the plot. We get that the New Order is to be feared. There is no need to beat us over the head with it. There were some scenes that even failed to advance the plot of the story and also failed to offer much in character development. In short, the opening is slow. After we finally leave Jakku, the pacing picks up and boy does it ever pick up. Once Han Solo is here, it’s a rollercoaster ride that lasts almost until the very end.
And then later… in the middle of the Death Star starship battle, we get interrupted by a longish lightsaber battle that leaves the Death Star scene hanging. Meaning, The Resistance (Rebels) trying to deal with how to bring down the death star and for the next 10-15 minutes, the pacing is killed with an awkward lightsaber battle that ends weirdly and doesn’t really conclude much. So, what were those X-wings up to the whole time the lightsaber battle was going on? Were they like on pause or something?
I would have expected to have more intercutting between the X-Wing battle and the lightsaber battle (like the lightsaber scene between Luke and Darth in Return of the Jedi and the space battle). The pacing between the space battle and the light saber battle in Return of the Jedi was amazing to behold. George didn’t always do everything right, but his editing skills were amazing. Unfortunately, JJ didn’t really seem to get the pacing or the tension here correct. So, the tension is almost completely killed while we watch this lightsaber battle unfold. I was hoping that these scenes would have been intercut better to keep the tension between both events high.
I enjoyed the The Force Awakens and want to see it again in 3D. I wouldn’t necessarily rate it a 93% that Rotten Tomato viewers have given or the 95% the critics have given it. I’d rate it more like 85%. It’s a good film and worth seeing. It especially ties up loose ends from what happened after Return of the Jedi nicely, but the pacing problems left me feeling less than impressed. Because TFA had nothing to do with the prequels, we can forget all about those films entirely and focus on what happened in episodes 4, 5, 6 and now 7. Well done Disney, JJ, Lucasfilm and George. Now, let’s see if we can keep this up and improve it for 8, 9 and beyond.