12.18.2015

Old is New Again: The Force Awakens (to a) Review

*looks around, brushes dust off of keyboard*

Huh. Haven't been here in a little while, have I. Guess that's what happens when you become a busy, productive adult with many important things to do. You don't have time to do the things that you really want to do unless you sit down and make time for them. Idleness doesn't befit productivity. It's not like I stopped thinking or stopped coming up with ideas for articles or pieces here; there's a sizable difference between thinking about something and actually taking the time to sit down and write it out.

All of this to say, I did take the time to have a leisurely activity happen this weekend. I went to see the new Star Wars film. And I have an opinion about it, of course, and since I'm on the internet and have my own website I'm going to put that opinion out for others to see.

Now, let me do two things out front here. This is going to be a more basic, simplistic review of the actual film itself as well as a few thoughtpieces about the film's story. I'm not going to go into the real implications from an in-universe standpoint that the film has. If that's more of what you're interested in, I encourage you to check out eleven-thirtyeight.com, the Star Wars fansite that I write for on occasion. I'll probably have an article out there in a couple of weeks, and pretty much everyone else there are as good or better writers than I am so their thoughts will be entertaining and informative as well.

The other thing I'm going to do is throw up a SPOILER WARNING right here and now. If you want to go into The Force Awakens not knowing anything, I'd advise you to do so first before reading my thoughts below. I'll do my best to avoid the major spoilers, but reviewing the film the way I do will naturally mean some discussion and dissection of the plot, characters, themes, etc.

Once again, this is a Spoiler Warning, stop reading now if you don't want to know any more about The Force Awakens than you already do.



 The Overview

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams and written by JJ and Laurence Kasdan, is a movie that revels in being old-fashioned, but with a modern twist. And I'm not just talking about the effects, we'll get to those later. I'm talking about the tone and structure of the film itself. Abrams and Kasdan have both said that when they wrote the film, they wanted to focus on being delightful, on delighting themselves and delighting the audience. A film that exists to help the audience have fun? It'll never catch on.

While I can't speak for anyone else, and I certainly can't speak for you dear reader, I was delighted by The Force Awakens. I grew up on Star Wars, as I've said before, the Original Trilogy are some of my all-time favorite movies. TFA is a movie that not only fits into the overall saga that already exists, but it also capitalizes on that fondness of feeling and nostalgia I have. It follows up the story of those older films, yes, but more than that it follows their tone.

Star Wars' tone is all over the place across the six film saga, from the extremely grim and dark Revenge of the Sith to the more joking and fun A New Hope. TFA flips back and forth across the spectrum quite a bit, mixing and matching the jokes with pathos and drama. It follows up on the events of Return of the Jedi after a thirty-year gap, showing us some bit of what happened to Our Heroes after the Emperor and Darth Vader were both killed.

But what TFA did best, and what I'm most excited about, is all of the new things that it gave us. New characters, new planets, new species, new weapons, new ships. There's a lot to build on here going forward, and with a new film coming every year from here on out, this film had a lot to do in laying down the brickwork for future events. Whatever later films might bring, it'll be more enjoyable because of what this movie laid out.

The Acting

Let's dive into some more specifics here. The cast for this film is a mix of character actors, legends of the franchise and complete unknowns, none of whom (except maybe Harrison Ford) are what could be considered A-list stars. But that's not to say they don't have talent. The four new cast members with the most prominent roles, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac and Adam Driver, are all superb. All of them feel like they've always existed in this universe, there isn't any awkward and stilted dialogue or wooden deliveries to be found here.

I need to give a special shout out to Driver and Ridley for their fantastic work. Driver plays the film's most prominent villain, Kylo Ren, and while he may seem like a stereotypical darkside warrior, a cheap imitation of Darth Vader, there are reasons and emotions and an internal conflict beyond the surface that turn Kylo into one of the saga's most compelling antagonists yet. Driver anchors Kylo Ren by making it clear he believes that he's doing the greater good, instead of just cartoonish evil for the sake of evil.

But it's Ridley's compelling performance as the scavenger Rey that forms the true core to the film. It's her decisions that drive the plot, its her journey to becoming a hero that we embark on, and it's her wide-eyed astonishment that we see the wonders of this new era through most clearly. It's really astonishing that this is Ridley's first major acting performance, as she delivers an honesty and strength to Rey that should belie a much more experience actress.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamil mark their returns to the franchise with this movie. Of the three, Ford has by far the most screen time as the now-legendary Han Solo, and he makes the most of it with the sort of gruff, wry commentary that can be expected of him. But there's thankfully more to his performance than that, with a sort of weariness and vulnerability that really hadn't existed in Han before now. Fisher has the next most prominent role, and while I wish I could say that she slipped right back into her role as Leia, I can't. It was very clear that Fisher had not acted in this capacity for some time, and she came off more stilted and awkward than anything. She did have at least two very good scenes, though, so it wasn't all to waste. And while telling anything about what Hamil did might be considered a spoiler, suffice it to say that he left a large impression as much by not being on screen as actually showing himself.

The rest of the supporting cast were all rather good, as well. Gwendoline Christie didn't get all that much screen time as Captain Phasma, cementing her as this film's equivalent of Boba Fett (look cool, say your piece and then get dumped in a hole). Lupita Nyong'o gives a fine enough performance as the aged and wise Maz Kanata, and unlike Christie she actually gets enough screen time to give her character a bit more texture than just the visual styling. Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux was perhaps the unexpected highlight for me, his absolute fanaticism and devotion to the First Order screaming off of the screen. Unfortunately his leader, Andy Serkis's Supreme Leader Snoke, was another relative disappointment, as while his threat and presence were intimidating enough, and Serkis's performance was great as usual, visually he just doesn't impose as much as he should. Here's hoping they clean that up a bit before Episode 8.

The Effects And Craft

When they announced that this film would have more practical effects than CGI, I wasn't as thrilled as most were. I'm a firm believer in the school of thought that it's not the way the effects are done that matters, it's how they're used. Thankfully, the visual artists at Industrial Light and Magic used them all, both CGI and practical, very very well. The CGI is for the most part relegated to starship battles and two of the characters (Snoke and Maz Kanata), but all of it is about as finely crafted as you might expect from ILM. And the practical effects are almost otherworldly, with puppets, masks and makeup to do wonderous things and bring all sorts of aliens to life.

But even grander than that are the sets and locations. From Jakku to Maz's castle, the temples of Yavin 4 or the winter forest of Starkiller Base, the film itself is incredibly visually beautiful. Be it in the still moments of quiet scenery by a lake or seeing the Millennium Falcon roar around the vast wrecks of Star Destroyers, there's so much to take in with each shot, every still frame and second of footage.

JJ Abram's cinematography is rather less beautiful, mostly because he seems to have an allergy to leaving the camera still during the more intense action sequences. It isn't even just Hunger Games-style shakycam, it's movement, shifting this way and that, quick cuts and edits that seem more fitting for a hyperactive music video than a Star Wars film. Sometimes it isn't notable, other times it's distracting. Thankfully it never really progresses to the point where it truly ruins any of the action.

My Conclusion

I loved the movie. I know that it's not perfect, I got into some of the flaws up above and there's more from a story perspective that I could get into but won't for the sake of brevity. But it was easily one of my favorite movies of the year. I don't know that I'd rate it above any of the Original Trilogy of films, but it was rather more enjoyable than most of the Prequels. I hate number rankings or stars or anything like that, so if you're looking down here for one, you won't find it. Suffice to say that I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to watching it again.

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