Sunday 20 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Forced Entry

Star Wars - Episode VII - The Force Awakens
2015 USA
Directed by J. J. Abrams
UK cinema release print.

I think I’ve kept this review spoiler free... which means I’m going to have to skirt around some issues here but, this is such a high profile film that, even if I put a spoiler warning like I normally do if there are spoilers here, I don’t think people will be all that into it. In fact, I had a much better title for this review but I figured the double meaning of it might enrage fans of the series if they figured it out before they saw the movie.

So... hmm... okay. Not really sure where to start with this one. I find Abrams a bit hit and miss as a director and there’s some good stuff in this movie but... there’s also some really bad stuff here too. If you’re looking for a really bright and breezy, fan positive rave about how good the new Star Wars movie is then, I’m sorry, as much as I love the original trilogy, I’m not going to let that get in the way of me being honest here. If that’s the kind of super happy review that you want then... this isn’t the review you’re looking for. Move along.

The main problem, first and foremost for me with this movie is... it doesn’t really feel too much like an original Star Wars movie. It does have some outstanding Star Wars moments, to be sure, but the whole thing looks like it’s being unnecessarily visually complicated to tell what, after all, is a very simple and repetitive story. This film feels more like it’s adhering to the 'special edition' makeover versions of the original trilogy rather than harkening back to the relative (it was mind blowing in its day) simplicity of the original cinema releases. Contrary to what I should be saying here, and this is really going to blow my credibility for most of you reading this, I really loved The Phantom Menace and think that particular prequel did what this movie is trying to do much better.

However, I don’t want that to dissuade from the fact that there are some really great things about this installment in the franchise so... let me cover the good stuff first.

Daisy Ridley (whose great uncle was Arnold Ridley, Private Fraser in Dad’s Army and writer of The Ghost Train), John Boyega and Oscar Isaac... as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron... are all absolutely fantastic in this. All turn in outstanding performances and they all have some great writing behind them. Even BB-8, the new droid of fame, is pretty amazing... there’s a particular moment John Boyega shares with the droid while Daisy Ridley’s stuck under the floorboards of the Falcon tinkering with the workings that is truly outstanding.

Finn is an extremely likeable character and the chemistry he shares with Rey and Poe is amazing. The scene where he meets Rey and there’s a whole ‘modern feminism’ vibe going on with a scene I shall refer to only as the "take my hand" sequence, is something which a lot of people are going to love. I’m not one hundred percent sure if it was actually trying to hit a feminist beat but it does it so well and triumphantly that you are going to be immediately on the side of the writers from this moment in the film on. What its basic function is, though, is to set up a relationship where one of the characters gains credibility and acceptance/welcome from another character and it does it very quickly in a kind of visual shorthand that really works. People are going to remember this stuff for a long time.

I was less impressed with Adam Driver’s performance as Kilo Ren, to be honest, but he seems pretty popular with everyone else so I think he must be a good casting decision, even if I think his character and the actions performed by that character are an unbelievable cinematic and literature cliché. Still, nothing wrong with that, the Star Wars films are based on homage and one of the original intentions when Lucas was involved was that it tell a story of three generations of heros like in the epic Cinerama movie How The West Was Won. That film is split up into segments which means that characters who were the heroes in one sequence died or went off and give rise to new heroes in the following sections and that’s always been in the back of my mind when it comes to approaching the way I watch the prequels and sequels.

Now here’s where I do my strange verbal dance and try and talk about certain things for the benefit of people who have already seen this movie while absolutely not saying what those things are. So here goes...

In the first film of each trilogy, something happens in the last section of the movie which makes good dramatic sense and, if you were going to try and make a Star Warsy style movie, it’s a good bet that you’d want to continue that dramatic set up in the first part of a new trilogy. So about a year and a half ago I figured out something specifically epic was going to happen in this one and I even, as it happened, nailed the character who was going to be involved in this incident. At some point before the film opened I widened my scope a little on the specific character because I didn’t think the director/writers would have the nerve to do this thing in the new movie to this character but, as I watched the various actors doing the pre-publicity tours and heard little snatches... I mostly avoided this stuff like the plague... something made me realise that this thing was definitely going to happen after all.

And this is where one of the bad things comes for me and where, I’m afraid, I hate being right. I don’t think this incident was handled particularly well but I think it’s going ot be the thing that this movie is most going to be remembered for... okay, it’ll also be remembered for Daisy Ridley’s Rey character for sure... and so I wish this moment hadn’t been quite so badly telegraphed throughout the entire movie either. I was actually just waiting for this thing to happen and maybe that spoiled my enjoyment of it somewhat.

See, file this under bad stuff but... there are really no big surprises in this film. There are two revelations set up and one of them could have gone either way but, seriously, the writers chose the most obvious solution to one of them and you’ll find that one out very early on in the movie, the first time you see Snoke, the master villain behind the scenes (in another holographic moment reminiscent of the title character in The Wizard Of Oz). The other revelation to be had... well, let’s just say I don’t know why Abrams and co have left this to be revealed in another film. Seriously, we all got enraged when it was so obvious before the movie even opened that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan in Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness... why he’s teasing out the identity of one of the characters here and carrying it into one of the following movies is a total mystery to me. I won’t reveal the obvious here but... everyone already knows, why hide it.

Okay, so we also have some returning cast and characters from the original trilogy and all I will say is that Harrison Ford as Han Solo totally nails it again this time around. I criticised him quite badly on the performance he put in on Return Of The Jedi but here he’s almost perfect. And when he isn’t perfect, it’s not his fault. There is a tremendously fun scene involving a 'monster vs prey' scene on board a ship which is, frankly, somewhat over the top for a Star Wars movie, I felt. I appreciate the filmmakers need to get new ideas in there and keep pushing the visual syntax of the universe of the movies forward but this just felt like too much. Ford handles it brilliantly though, so there’s that.

The other thing that bugged me a little about Solo in this one was his relationship with Chewbacca. The two have been friends and colleagues in the timeline of the Star Wars universe for how long? At least 40 years of history between the two characters, maybe more? And this is the first time Han has ever used Chewie’s bowcaster? In all their time together? Seriously? You expect us to believe this rubbish? Again, Ford plays it beautifully in some nice comic moments but the credibility of those moments is completely lost in the logic of the situation. Also, the bowcaster was a big, heavy weapon that you always imagined only something as big as a wookie would be able to use... here it’s revealed it's almost as light as a regular weapon and it kind of diminishes the look and design of the prop when used in this context too, in my opinion.

And talking about historic props... there’s the return of a major one here which kind of beggars belief in terms of conitnuity with the last trilogy but, what the heck, I guess they may have a stab at clearing that up in a future film... I hope.

So before I get to my last bad thing... there was one thing which left me puzzled and that is in terms of music. Once again John Williams delivers a brilliant score and, listening to it in the context of the movie (I don’t have it as a stand alone yet... come on Christmas) it’s easily one of his best scores of the series, harkening back to the musical soundscape of the original trilogy rather than the prequel trilogy. That’s a double edged sword in some cases because there are some musical moments in here which, while I know thay must have been re-recorded, sound so close to the original orchestration and timings for other scenes they’ve been used in before, that they sound almost needle dropped in. That being said, the puzzling thing happens when we get our very first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon in this movie, in a wonderfully constructed set up sequence. As soon as we see the Falcon though, it’s accompanied by the Death Star leitmotif from the first movie. What? That popped me straight out of the movie as my mind boggled as to why Williams had chosen to use this at this point in the score. My only guess is that it features prominently in the cue entitle Ben’s Death and Tie Fighter Attack on the original 1977 Star Wars album, which accompanied the scene where the Falcon is fleeing the Death Star... a case of musical association by proximity rather than actual literal translation of the theme I guess. It’s still a nice moment and it didn’t diminish my appreciation of the scene too much, I suppose.

Okay, last bad thing... this movie doesn’t have a Star Wars ending. All the other “first movie in the trilogy” films ended with a celebration/closure, no matter what had happened to various characters throughout the movie... and even the cliffhanger chapters like The Empire Strikes Back left the heroes poised to go on the next bit of the quest. Here, the film should definitely have finished where Rey and her companions in the scene (I don’t want to say who) go off in the Falcon but, curiously, we get a little tagged on ending to the movie which feels inconsistent with the series as a whole. I know, in some ways, if they didn’t include something of this nature here, the fans would be out hunting for Abram’s blood (and I include myself as a great admirer of the Star Wars movies, for sure). At the end here, though, we have a scene which feels like it best belongs coming half an hour or so into Episode VIII although, to be fair, the character arcs for everyone are so easy to see here that, well, I can’t see that there will be any surprises there either so, what the hell, just have that final scene in this one, I suppose. Felt tacked on to the end kinda haphazardly though so... yeah, could really have done without it and would have preferred to wait patiently for another few years instead. But, you know, hindsight is a marvellous thing etc.

And that’s that. I kind of regret the fact, almost, that I now have to take various people I promised, to see this movie in the next week or two. Normally when I see a Star Wars movie I can’t wait to get back in te cinema and see it again. This one... I would be quite happy to wait until the Blu Ray release and see if it holds up better the second time through. I usually leave the cinema with a feel good vibe after Star Wars... I just felt kind of numb and depressed for a couple of hours after seeing this one. That being said, there’s some really great stuff in this one and, like The Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here), I’m really hoping it will grow on me after repeated viewings. Some films do have that power and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be the case with this one.

So the only final word I’m going to have here, I think is... if they writers don’t bring Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian in the next installment, they are really missing a trick. They’ll really need him to make the story beats work, I think.

Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker

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