Similar to my Avengers review from earlier in the year, I had some thoughts going into the movie, so I thought I would write them about before I actually saw it. The first two paragraphs were written about a week before I saw the movie.
Is it possible to be unbiased about Star Wars? I’m not just talking about myself, I’m talking about reviewers as a whole. Is there any way to approach Star Wars, the movie franchise that defines our modern pop culture and movie landscape more than any other except maybe (MAYBE) Tim Burton’s Batman, with completely fresh eyes? Can a critic, a fan, even an audience member, enter that theater completely fresh and clean?
I would say, no. Regardless of how you personally feel about them, it is literally impossible to go into a Star Wars movie without some form of expectation. That’s not a problem, nor is it a bonus, it’s merely a fact. It’s impossible to be completely unaware or or unbiased towards Star Wars, which I feel is useful to acknowledge. So if my borderline-obsessive love for the original trilogy, or my intense distaste for the prequels taints this review for you in any way, I’ll understand.
Actual Review begins now
This leads us straight into another issue in reviewing this movie; Spoilers. I’ve seen dozens of people threatening dozens of other people with a variety of horrifying fates if this movie is spoiled for them. So, rather than even try to summarize it without spoiling, I’m just going to…not. This might seem somewhat unorthodox, but I’ve always been a renegade critic. [Editor’s Note: Not really.]
The Force Awakens is a bit of an oddity of a film overall. It’s pulled in different directions, determined to pay (repeated) homage to the original trilogy, not make the same mistakes as the prequels and to try and tell its own original story. These ideas are pulling the movie in different directions and leaving it on the overstuffed side.
But, and this is an important but, it’s good. I was as nervous as anyone going in, since JJ Abrams’ work on Star Trek is subpar and everything Lawrence Kasdan has written since Return of the Jedi has been terrible (he wrote and directed Dreamcatcher people). Bur while The Force Awakens is not quite the equal to the original trilogy, but its definitely the best Star Wars movie since Jedi.
One of the best aspects is the cast. Ford and Fisher are both excellent in their roles, stepping back into characters they haven’t played in 30 years like they’re comfortable suits, and handling the big emotional scenes with aplomb. I was surprised by how well Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are in the leads. Boyega is a solid secondary lead, with good comic timing and a good presence in the action beats.
But the real standout is Ridley. She participates in possibly the best action beat of the entire movie, and is a solid, believably intense yet still amusing heroine, in the classic Star Wars mold, and I really can’t wait to see the next movie when she begins…oh wait, no spoilers. And special mention must go to the small, but crucial role played by Oscar Isaac, who steals every seen he’s in. It’s also worthwhile to note that, despite the incredible devotion to the original trilogy (more on that moment), none of them fall into the trap of just being the Luke or Han or Leia role.
Abrams’ direction is also pretty solid, especially due to the absence of lens flares. There’s no shortage of good air battles throughout, all of which look great and are well put together. And while there’s only one real lightsaber fight, it’s a great sequence, with some actual emotion weight behind it. The movie might be straining to fit more action beats than the movie can reasonably sustain (hold on, we’ll get there) but all of them, except an awkwardly placed monster based one in the second act, are enjoyable and engaging.
If there’s one thing the movie is missing, it’s strong and engaging villains. Kylo Ren is a visually intimidating villain, but once we actually spend time with him, my engagement in him begins to drop, and they’re clearly leaving huge chunks of his character for Episode VIII. And while the heroes managed to keep out of the trap of filling the roles established by the original characters, the villains did not, with the most obvious being Not-Grand-Moff-Tarkin, who is a far cry from Peter Cushing.
And while the action scenes are well put together, the plot as a whole might not be. The movie is full of Abram’s favorite story gimmicks, only filtered through Kasdan’s writing, and that might not be the best approach for it. The script is solid on the dialogue side (even if the best scene is a completely dialogue-less scene right at the end), but the plot plays like a retread of A New Hope, but with everyone writing already knowing the big reveals from Empire and Jedi, and therefore alluding to them constantly, which can get annoying.
Which might be okay, if the retread plot was engaging in its own rights, or any of the reveals had the impact of “No Luke, I am your father,” but the only reveal that actually arrives in this movie lands with a thud, and the homages to the original trilogy gets old pretty fast. I’m not certain if I expected this movie to not pay a ton of homage to the original trilogy, but I do draw the line at making the plot essentially the same as New Hope.
Of course this might be…somewhat intentional, or at least partially metatextual. Without discussing plot points, the actual text of the story is devoted to trying to find and live up to the literal legends of the past. One could probably examine this more closely as intentional commentary on having to live up the legacy of one of the most important film franchises in history, but the end result is that the movie plays like a 2oo million dollar fan film.
But saying it feels like a fan film isn’t the snarl of anger it might sound like. A fan film is something made with love for the original product, and there is clearly a lot of love in this film. It might be completely redundant to give a positive review to a movie that is easily going to break 1.5 billion world wide, but The Force Awakens has my recommendation. Even if Gwendoline Christie isn’t in it NEARLY enough.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wishes that Star Wars writers would get off the name Starkiller.
– mostly good script
– great action
– solid special effects
– pays proper homage to the original trilogy
– spends too much time retreading A New Hope
– villains are a bit of a letdown
– CGI alongside special effects looks odd sometimes (didn’t have a chance to bring it up, sorry)
– Gwendoline Christie isn’t in it enough