Guest Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Guest Review by: Heather
Oh my God, wow… WOW!
There’s, of course, so much more to say than that about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But first reactions do say a lot about a film. As the credits rolled the first words out of my mouth were essentially just lots of inarticulate exclamations. Then I called my Dad, our very own Retired Movie Critic, and repeated the exact same exclamations (especially when I learned he hadn’t gotten tickets to a show earlier than the 27th!). Why all these excessive emotions? Let’s talk about that.
First, the excellent build up. If you’re a human adult, you have probably know the basics about about Star Wars. What started as three episodes in the late 70s and 80s turned into an additional three in the late 90s and 2000s. I read years back that Lucas had conceived of his space opera as at least nine episodes, but there was little hope that they would ever be produced. Then, a miracle!, in October 2012 we learned that the final three Star Wars films would be created after Lucasfilm, including the Star Wars franchise, was sold to Disney. Shortly after, we learned that J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) was helming the reboot, and while some were nervous about this decision, citing concerns about lens flares and worries about mixing up the Trek and Wars worlds, I was thrilled. J.J. Abrams is a great director, and I personally loved his Star Trek reboot. From that point on, every time huge news was announced there was something to be excited about. The return of the original cast. Bringing on Lawrence Kasdan, who helped write Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as a writer. Abram’s announcement, while standing in front of an actual x-wing fighter, that he was returning to a more realistic feel that would hearken back to the original trilogy by incorporating more practical effects and puppets. The Teaser trailer appeared in November 2014. And the anticipation just kept building and building. Each teaser, trailer and TV spot was done in such a way to drop more hints, introduce us to new characters, and give fans jolts of nostalgia through bits and pieces from the original films that were carried forward, like the Millennium Falcon appearing in the first teaser trailer, Han and Chewie appearing in Teaser #2, or a shot of X-wing fighters heading into battle. The build-up was masterfully done, and I imagine that those of us who didn’t search for spoilers online were able to experience the films just like those who saw the original trilogy back in the 70s and 80s – not having a clue what was coming or how each film would end.
Nostalgia is important, but as we learned from the prequel films, a strong story, and incredible actors are crucial, as is an adherence to a specific aesthetic. Unfortunately the prequel films, the first released in 1999, the third in 2005, were created during a time when the use of digital effects was exploding in the industry, perhaps explaining Lucas’ departure from the original aesthetic. We should also remember, though, when Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, there were many groundbreaking advances to the field of SFX created by Lucas and Lucasfilm. We should not be surprised that Jar Jar Binks was one of the first CG cast members. As Jordan Maison of Cinelinx states, “It’s something which hadn’t been done before (though now it’s commonplace), and the truth about pioneering technology is that it doesn’t always work.” What made this hard for so many to forget was how different the prequel films looked from the originals, filmed 20 years earlier. Abrams hit the nail directly on the head by incorporating practical effects for many characters (recalling our favorite puppets of the original trilogy), while still incorporating digital effects to generate a sense of place as well as some other interesting characters. More importantly, the three prequel films suffered from poorly-written scripts that were challenged by a specific end-point that needed to be met, as well as a galaxy of anticipation and expectation. No amount of digital effects, however groundbreaking, can make up for a poorly written story. Episode 7 was not faced with the same challenges. Digital effects have come an incredibly long way, and as for the story, the galaxy was wide open for this film.
The script was very well done, with input from Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams. The focus of the story is clearly establishing emotional connections to the new characters so we care about what happens to them, and this left much more up to the imagination, leaving overdone narration by the wayside. Aside from the obvious end-point the Prequel films were held to, they were also challenged by a script that focused too much on explaining the science of the Force, the politics of the Clone Wars, and most unfortunately, Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker narrating point by point their own love story which generated some of the most canned lines for these actors. Granted, midi-chlorians are already explained for those of us who saw the previous films, but in The Force Awakens there is nary a midi-chlorian to distract us from the great acting. While some may call the unanswered questions of Episode Seven plot holes, it is certain we’d all be more happy left wanting with the story, especially anticipating two more films in the next 5 years. We have no idea exactly how the First Order rose out of the Empire, which last we saw was decimated 30 years ago after Return of the Jedi. We know that Kylo Ren is the leader of the Knights of Ren, and that they slaughtered the Jedi in the school that Luke Skywalker established, but that is all we know. The internet is rife with theories about who Rey’s parents are, and why she was left to a terrible life as a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku. If all our questions were answered with this one film, we would feel far less satisfaction.
One additional reason why I think this film was successful was the chance for us to learn to love new characters while getting a jolt of dopamine with the presence of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader’s mask, and a whole story centered around a search for Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. As the final scene suggests, this literally is a handoff from the original trilogy’s characters to the current new – backed up by the knowledge that our new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8 will be in Episode 8. Basically, every character was new in Episode 1-3, but had huge expectations to live up to. These new characters do not have that same expectation, and they benefit from the chance to play off of existing characters we’re already connected to. Our ability to enjoy these new characters was bolstered by a script that built the relationships between Poe and Finn, Rey and Ren, and between Finn and Rey from the very beginning of the film. The duels in this film are incredible – well choreographed and conceived, and benefit from the tension between characters that is established as we progress through the film.
We also see great bonding between existing characters and between new and old – the interactions between Finn, Rey and Han Solo are wonderful, and it is interesting to see Han Solo admit that the force is real and serve as an older guide and semi-mentor to for Finn and Rey. The splashes of humor are realistic and break the tension in a constructive way – there isn’t even a hint of the slapstick, kiddish humor (C-3PO’s “I’m beside myself” of Attach of the Clones) from the prequels.
Perhaps the only criticism I have heard about this new film is that the story does replicate previous plot points; yet again there is another Empire-generated (the First Order in Episode 7) super weapon that needs to be destroyed. However, I am of the mindset that while, yes, many plot points were the same or similar, the overall point of this story was two-fold: a hunt for the missing Luke Skywalker, and a literal passing of the torch to the new members of the cast who will continue the legacy in Episode Eight. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was exactly what it should have been: a blast of nostalgia, familiar themes and aesthetic, great storytelling and an opening up of the saga once again to get us ready for the next two films. If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely must go see it while there is still a chance of there being enthusiastic fans applauding the trademark theme music and cheering as every familiar face or vehicle appears on screen.
This film was directed by J.J. Abrams, and has a screenplay by Abrams, Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, with score by John Williams and sound editing by Ben Burtt.