STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Author's Note: This review will be filled to the brim with spoilers. This will be your only warning. You read at your own discretion.
It's a safe bet that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the most anticipated film of the year. The fans were lining up three and a half hours early to see it in IMAX, some in their outfits. Now, I think I'm a bit too old to be walking around in public in Jedi garb with my lightsaber at my side (and I also think people dressed in pajamas and taking selfies inside the theater is also idiotic, but that's neither here nor there). I didn't line up three and a half hours early (and see no need to). About half and hour was the most I waited, altogether a reasonable time. Yet I digress.
The Force Awakens is a good film, but like J.J. Abrams' last effort (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan Remake), I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was essentially watching a 'greatest Star Wars hits' mashup, something less original and more retread of what I've seen before. There's nothing wrong that per se, but still, I sensed some disturbance in The Force. Perhaps this is what those fans in their Wookie wardrobe waited three hours (in some cases, more than three days) to experience. For my part, it takes more than fan service to make me think something is good.
As this is my second time watching The Force Awakens, I found that while my position has actually softened with regards to the fact that the film is really a retread of the Original Trilogy, my ranking has gone down. I didn't think The Force Awakens is terrible. I just didn't think it was as brilliant as all those dazzled by its IMAX 3-D glory thought it was either.
It's been 30 years since the events of the last chronological Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, has disappeared. The search for him is on, with two groups in pursuit: the "NOT Empire" First Order, and the "NOT Rebellion" Resistance. The First Order is headed by the "NOT Emperor" Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei...I mean, Snoke (Andy Serkis), who has his own "NOT Darth Vader" Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his own "NOT Grand Moff Tarkin", General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
Meanwhile, on "NOT Tatooine" Jakku, "NOT Luke Skywalker" Rey (Daisy Ridley) is eking out a life as a scavenger when she comes upon "NOT R2-D2" BB-8. BB-8 contains important information about Luke's whereabouts, information both the "NOT Empire" First Order and the "NOT Rebellion" Resistance need. "NOT Darth Vader" kills the villagers and "NOT Rebellion" hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured. "NOT Darth Vader" extracts the information by using The Dark Side, and the chase for the "NOT R2-D2" is on.
Stormtrooper FN2187 finds a conscience, and helps Poe escape. Poe gives the Stormtrooper the new name of Finn (John Boyega) and while Finn would rather flee as far from the "NOT Empire" as possible, Poe needs to get "NOT R2-D2" back which has the message for Obi-Wan Kenobi...I mean, the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. Finn crashes on "NOT Tatooine" and finds "NOT Luke Skywalker" who w/Finn escapes on the Millennium Falcon (left to rot in a junkyard). Finding the Falcon is none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Han has gone back to smuggling, and mourning the loss of Luke and of Han and Princess Leia's son, Ben.
Han takes them first to "NOT Yoda" Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), the owner of "NOT Mos Eisley's Cantina". Here, Rey discovers Luke's lightsaber, which calls to her for reasons she knows not. As for what "NOT Yoda" is doing with Luke's lightsaber, by her own admission, is a good question...for another time. "NOT Darth Vader" captures "NOT Luke Skywalker", leaving "NOT R2-D2" since he believes she can lead them to the map the bot has.
"NOT Darth Vader" realizes that "NOT Luke Skywalker" is strong with the Force, though untrained. Despite no training, she is easily able to use Jedi mind tricks to work at escaping the spaceship, which the "NOT Rebellion" discovers is "NOT Death Star" Starkiller Base, which can harness the power of a sun to destroy other planets. Even Admiral Ackbar is SHOCKED! Finn agrees to help the "NOT Rebellion" break into the "NOT Death Star" and destroy it, though his real motive is to rescue "NOT Luke Skywalker".
Han and "NOT Darth Vader" meet, and "NOT Darth Vader" kills his father. "NOT Darth Vader" is now in pursuit of "NOT Luke Skywalker" and Finn, the former who wields Luke's lightsaber with remarkable agility. Eventually, Poe leads the fighters into destroying the "NOT Death Star" (though both "NOT Darth Vader" and "NOT Grand Moff Tarkin" manage to escape), and while Princess/General Leia mourns for her husband and son, she sends "NOT Luke Skywalker" to where the map leads, and that is to the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who silently stares at the person I figure is his daughter.
Contrary to any impression I may have left, I am not opposed to remakes. I'm not particularly fond of them, but sometimes remakes can be good, provided you have intelligent people behind them. The Charlton Heston versions of Ben-Hur AND The Ten Commandments are remakes, something people tend to forget. The problem is that The Force Awakens essentially is a MadLibs version of at least the first original Star Wars films (and I've heard a few people say it takes bits and pieces from the prequels too).
About the only thing left was for someone to come around wearing a slave-girl outfit (though fortunately, Carrie Fisher was spared that indignity...and us that horror). It's a terrible thing to say, but say it I will: Carrie Fisher looks more haggard than her mother Debbie Reynolds, and I figure the audience thought so too. At the second screening I went to, there was more applause for when C3-P0 appeared than when Princess Leia showed up (the biggest applause reserved for Han Solo).
Perhaps this is one thing that The Force Awakens has no interest in. I suspect it expects you to know who everyone is, so for those uninitiated the appearance of this old man would mean nothing (though in fairness I think you could put that together really quickly). If you walk into The Force Awakens completely unaware, a lot will get lost. This leads me to ask if The Force Awakens was meant as pure fan service, a fan-fiction brought to the big screen rather than a legitimate effort to expand the galaxy far, far away.
When I first heard there would be more Star Wars films, I asked 'why?' (and was the only one to do so apparently). The Empire was defeated, Anakin was redeemed, what more was there to say? Given The Force Awakens, not very much.
I think it is clear now that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams (who co-wrote the script with Laurence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt) is a great mimic, but is not one for originality. I've already commented that in his films, he's copied from Wrath of Khan and from directors Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille, which is within his right to do so. However, what is the point of watching what one has seen before (especially when there was such a great opportunity to create something truly original).
In regards to the script, I'm calling crap on one particular point. Here is Rey, a scavenger who has apparently spent her whole life on "NOT Tatooine", yet with no training whatsoever she is able to use Jedi mind tricks with the greatest of ease. Furthermore, her climatic battle with Kylo Ren (while good) is equally bizarre: this scavenger so adept at using a lightsaber. Ren at one point tells her she could benefit from a teacher, offering himself as her mentor (I figure for the Dark Side), but I actually laughed out loud at this. Given show well she was doing on her own with someone who had been trained by Luke Skywalker himself before being seduced by the Dark Side, it didn't look like she needed a teacher.
The same goes for how adept Finn was at lightsaber battling. Twice this low-level Stormtrooper used Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and used it with remarkably great skill, and I just said that is patently ridiculous. Finn would not have lasted a minute battling Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, but there he was, giving as good as he got.
One of two things: either any Tom, Dick, or Finn can now use lightsabers, or Kylo Ren is just what Driver made him to be: a whiny emo kid with MAJOR Daddy and Granddaddy issues. When Kylo smashes part of the spaceship with his lightsaber when learning Rey and BB-8 escape, it was reminiscent of Hayden Christensen's reaction in Attack of the Clones. I'm surprised he didn't shout that it was all Obi-Wan's fault and that he was holding him back too.
The one thing Kylo Ren didn't learn regarding Granddad was that it takes more than a mask and black robes to make you menacing. It takes being soulless, but Ren I thought was never a real menace. I think Driver did as good a job as he could (though the constant unmasking was a bit much for me), but I couldn't help that maybe if Han had hugged him more all this could have been avoided.
Also, I thought all of Darth Vader had been burned on Endor in Return of the Jedi. What, did someone dig him up for Kylo to be carrying around all these years?
Now, I think I should focus on the positive, and that is Ridley as Rey. This is her film, and she did an absolutely fantastic job as this reluctant warrior, one who lives by her wits and is stronger than she's given credit for. "Stop holding my hand," she shouts at Finn when they're making their escape, and it's nice to see that Star Wars can still give good roles to women.
The diversity program of The First Order also helps with Boyega's Finn, who evolved from the frightened, somewhat bumbling Stormtrooper to someone who could rise to be a warrior against his former comrades. It's unfortunate that Isaac had a limited role as Poe, for he makes the most of his screen time, making the cocky but talented pilot into someone we do genuinely like.
John Williams, whom I see as the last Jedi of film composers, still delivers with a brilliant score, and while in terms of actual story I think little of Abrams I have to give credit where it's due: he did keep things flowing (save for when Solo and Company had to escape his pursuers and the monsters he was transporting, which could have been cut or trimmed from the bloated running time and added nothing to the story).
As for Solo's death, well, to be frank I think people should have seen it coming. Once he walked onto the bridge, I think we all knew he was a goner. I think Ford has always wanted Han Solo killed off (I think that was his original wish in Empire Strikes Back) and now he is forever free of one of his most iconic characters.
Well, there's always the Star Wars Holiday Special to remember him by...
I really can't say The Force Awakens is a terrible film. It moves well, has some really great work by some of the cast (Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac, with Driver failing only because his character was so whiny). Gleeson was the exception, going full-on crazy with his Nazi-like speech just before the "NOT Death Star" unleashes Hell. I thought it was comical, as was "NOT The Emperor" looking like Voldemort's long-lost cousin. The original cast was also pretty good: Ford bringing in the pathos of his failed relationship with Ben Solo, Fisher not as strong as General Leia.
I can see why so many Star Wars fans like The Force Awakens. After all, it's an amalgamation of all the past Star Wars films rolled into one.
However, as someone who, despite his large Obi-Wan collection, is not big into Star Wars as I was when I was six, I am not as easily bought off as others.
Finally, to those who insist that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is really this absolutely brilliant film, one that will leave you astonished in its ingenuity and originality, I have only this to say...