Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Review: Playing It Safe For The Win


It has been a long time and after 10 years we have finally returned to a galaxy far, far away, but something is different this time. As the opening text crawl first appears on screen and we begin our journey into a brand new trilogy of Star Wars films there is this stigma attached to it that is hard to shake. Knowing the franchise is in completely different hands it is worrisome in a way because as much as we have scorned its creator to the point of sending him underground for the rest of his career, it feels almost like a betrayal to watch his creation in the hands of those who are there to clean up his mess more than continue what he began. There are so many emotions running through me at the moment that it is difficult to say one way or the other whether this new breed of Star Wars film is the one we were looking for, but that won't stop me from trying. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 16 min
Studio: Disney Pictures
Release Date: December 18, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
Likes: Episode 4: A New Hope, Episode 6: Return of the Jedi, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith
Neutral: Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
Hates: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Who is making Episode 8?: Rian Johnson, the director of Looper and The Brothers Bloom.


It is years after the rebellion has claimed victory against Darth Vader, the Emperor and the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into hiding and with his absence a new threat has arisen out of the ashes of the Empire called The First Order, led by the tyrannical and mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With Luke missing the burden of stopping The First Order has fallen to his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) who has taken it upon herself to lead the resistance, a new band of freedom fighters trying to free the galaxy once more from clutches of evil. Knowing that Luke is the key to securing victory, Leia has dispatched her best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to track down her long lost brother who travels to the desert planet of Jakku in hopes of obtaining information leading to his location. Instead he finds two new allies with the adventure seeking orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), a man trying to escape his past by any means necessary.

This will be more a technical review of the film, much like most of my reviews but I am planning a fan reaction review in the near future so be on the look out for that. Just in case there is anyone who might think anything that is said from here on out is leading to a negative review I will say right now that I enjoyed The Force Awakens immensely. Did I love it? Well, only time will tell on that one and if there is one thing the prequel trilogy taught us it is to be cautious with our feelings towards things we inherently want to love. But it is safe to say that no matter what your feelings are towards the prequels or the original trilogy you will like this new Star Wars just as much if not more depending on your background and history with the entire saga. But was The Force Awakens made simply as damage control or was it made to be an evolution of the franchise? The answer is unsurprisingly both.


Fans were burned badly by the prequels, real bad. So much so that they pummeled its creator with countless slanderous remarks, youtube videos and fan edits of the prequels to the point of turning him off from ever wanting anything to do with Star Wars ever again. He even sold the thing! Yes he made a lot of money but the guy was so turned off that he just got rid of it, that is kind of crazy. But there is no denying that his vision for the Star Wars prequels was far different from what the fans wanted and his separation from the franchise that he started back in 1977 was seen as something to celebrate as opposed to something to lament which is just kind of sad when you think about it. That places the new film, The Force Awakens in a curious spot. Not only does it have to lay the ground work for a brand new trilogy with brand new characters but it also has the double duty of appeasing a legion of fans ready to tear it apart if it doesn't meet all their requirements.

That is why bringing director J.J. Abrams on board to steer the franchise out of rough waters was such a master stroke (and something I predicted with my list of possible contenders to helm episode 7, which Abrams landed at number 2 just behind Spielberg). He knew what he was up against because he was under the same pressure when rebooting the Star Trek franchise, that is why he initially turned down the offer to make the film. Being a fan himself though he couldn't pass up the opportunity to put his stamp on what is arguably the biggest film franchise of all time even though he was fighting an uphill battle in regards to fan expectations. There was a balance that needed to be struck between the story he wanted to tell and the story the fans wanted told, something that isn't easy for any storyteller let alone the one person given the burden of redeeming the Star Wars franchise. So the question then becomes how much of The Force Awakens is fan service and how much of it is actual Star Wars? 


There is no doubt there is a lot of fan service at play here with many familiar themes and outright borrowed story arcs from the previous films (mostly the original trilogy) which may rub people the wrong way if they are looking for something completely different. Sure there are plenty of nods and homages from the other films (mostly A New Hope) and a couple of unnecessary new inclusions but Abrams has learned from his past mistakes and limits their use. As fans though we want that nostalgia, we want to see the chess set from Episode 4, we want to see the Millennium Falcon have problems going to lightspeed and we want hear that classic John Williams score, it just needs to be used sparingly which Abrams has successfully accomplished with only a handful of speed bumps.

Where the film makes or breaks itself however isn't with all the nostalgia induced sentiments but with its characters, both old and new. This is the one area that will definitely be up for contention due to all the obvious similarities between the new characters here and the older ones but what really matters is if we care about them, something the prequel trilogy made almost impossible to do. With that in mind it is difficult to find any real fault with The Force Awakens as it introduces us to a stable of new and exciting characters that may start out in the same place as some similar characters from the original trilogy but by the end they have all clearly begun to forge their own unique paths. This is of course mostly dealing with the new characters introduced of which there isn't a single rotten one in the bunch.


Rey (Daisy Ridley) is the clearly the Luke of this story being the abandoned child on a desert planet who dreams of adventure. But what makes her a standout character isn't the obvious heroes journey that she begins, it is who she is that makes her such an appealing antagonist, more so than even Luke in many regards. That may sound like a blasphemous thing to say but just wait until you see how she gets herself out of a jam or just how darn likable she comes across which is due in large part to Ridley herself who is impossible not to love. Luke was a whiny kid, Rey is a strong woman with a simple wish to find her parents who gets swept up into the adventure of a lifetime, she will become a fan favorite in no time if not already.

Finn on the other hand is the complete opposite of Rey as his story is something we have never seen explored in the Star Wars universe before which makes his journey even more interesting than Rey's in many ways. Aside from adding a fresh perspective on the whole redemptive story arc he also adds a lot of humor and excitement which must be credited to Boyega who is having the time of his life here. He isn't just a throwaway character either, he is the linchpin, the person who brings everyone together. More important than that though is how he does it, he isn't looking to be the savior of anything, he just wants to run away as far as possible and the difference from where he starts to where he ends up easily makes him one of the most endearing characters in the entire Star Wars saga.


When it comes to any villain in Star Wars it's near impossible not to compare them to Darth Vader and Kylo Ren is no different. Abrams took a big chance with the character of Kylo and that chance has mostly paid off. Instead of fearing fans comparing him unfavorably to Vader he actually embraces the comparison, so much so in fact that the character himself has a complex about whether or not he can live up to Vader's legacy. There is so much more to talk about in regards to the part Kylo Ren plays in the overall story but that is going way deep into spoiler territory so we will refrain for now. Suffice it to say that with the story Abrams has decided to tell, both Kylo Ren and Adam Driver's performance are exactly how they should be. Whether others will embrace the brave new direction for this new villain is a whole other ball of wax, but for my money it works surprisingly well.

Other new characters introduced are more in the background but no less intriguing. Poe Dameron is a really fun character but also feels somewhat insignificant in many regards. This is mostly due to how much he resembles Finn with his high energy level and exhaustive positive vibe, plus he disappears for a large chunk of the film resulting in someone we like but never get to know. Maz (Lupita Nyong'O) is really interesting as well but much like Poe we only see her for a limited time. The villains get a couple of possible great characters in Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) but both were extremely underutilized. The Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was a surprise and although the character design on him is questionable it doesn't do anything to make him any less intriguing.


Lastly there is the new droid BB-8 who was a fantastic addition to this new trilogy and may well be the only new character everyone will fall in love with. For six films now the two primary droids have always been C-3PO and R2D2 which is fine, but it was so refreshing to meet a new droid that wasn't crippled by a bad motivator unit or get blasted off the wing of a ship only a few minutes after meeting them. More importantly is that BB-8 has got personality to spare which only makes him even more lovable. If there were a clear winner in this new Star Wars when it comes to winning the audience over it is no doubt BB-8.

It's important to note that there are no outright comedy relief characters. There are no Jar Jar's and a very limited amount of exposure to the likes of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Instead a lot of the film's humor is derived from all the characters and not because they say funny things, which they do, but mostly from their actions and having honest reactions to their circumstances at any given time. Finn and Poe get a lot of great moments with Finn in particular who delivers a single line of dialog that will certainly go down in history and likely join the pantheon of Star Wars quotes. BB-8 gets a great moment as well between him and Finn that was well earned. However there are other sources of humor as well and they come from a not so surprising character.


Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has long been the real comedy relief of the Star Wars saga for a very long time. He never acted funny but his interactions with everyone from all the flirting with Leia to all the insults he slung towards C-3PO are Star Wars lore by this point and it is with great satisfaction that I report nothing has changed over the past 30 years (except for a few grey hairs). One of the bigger worries among fans were than Han (or more to the point Harrison Ford's ability to recapture the spirit of the character) would be a watered down version and that is not the case. In fact Harrison Ford seems to have found a new love for the character as he seems constantly overjoyed in nearly every scene he is in.

What makes the return of Han such a delight is not only seeing him flying the Millennium Falcon once again but also seeing the return of Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Chewy has always been sort of in the background like the droids and had little impact other than giving Han someone to bounce dialog off of but Abrams has found a way to bring him to forefront a little more. It would be misleading to call Chewy a main character here but he certainly has more to do this time around and even a few key moments that will undoubtedly create even more Chewy fans. Both Han and Chewy's integration into a film dominated by a young and more vibrant could have been a disaster if not handled right but in many ways they are the true stars of the film.


Leia doesn't get nearly as much screentime as Han, Chewy or any of the new players but her late appearance is equally effective as Han's introduction and just as emotional. Seeing Han and Leia back together again is one of those moments fans have dreamed of seeing for the past 30 years and their homecoming doesn't disappointment. Carrie Fisher hasn't exactly been at the top of her acting game for quite some time and her preparation for returning to the galaxy far, far away was reportedly extensive and it shows. She hasn't looked this radiant in a very long time and the film wouldn't have been the same without her. As for Luke...well, let's just say that his presence in the film is felt from beginning to end and when he does finally appear you won't be disappointed but perhaps just a bit anxious to see more.

For all this glowing praise about the characters and actors you would think that the film overall is a success, which it is. But that doesn't prevent one from finding a few cracks in the armor no matter how well it was forged. There really isn't much to discuss outside of nitpicks but there are two glaring areas of contention that will likely be sore points for a select few. These problematic areas are of course in reference to how heavily Abrams leans on the original trilogy and his own style of filmmaking which as evidenced by the huge divide between new and old Star Trek fans is a considerable road block for many.


Tackling the arguments that the film is too similar to A New Hope first we should look at the entire Star Wars saga. While many dismiss what George Lucas has to say about the franchise anymore it is true nevertheless that there has been a pattern established. That pattern is clearly recreated in The Force Awakens as Rey's journey starts the same way that both Anakin and Luke's did. Isn't that a flaw though? To paraphrase a famous Jedi, it really depends on your point of view. Some might see it as lazy and overly simplistic but others might see it as reinforcing the fact that the destinies for all these characters are guided by the force and interwoven in a way that sees them all spring from the same well.

The bigger issues however come from how overstuffed the film feels. Much like his two Star Trek films Abrams feels the need to cram as much into a 2 hour runtime as humanly possible. That's all well and fine if most of the content is new, fresh and in service to the overall story, which it is for the most part, but when you throw in some completely unnecessary call backs to nearly every episode in the trilogy it can seem a little silly. The introduction of the Starkiller base is already a little bit much (did we really need another, bigger death star?) but without giving too much away the finale felt like rinse and repeat for the most part which was only worsened by the fact that there were much more interesting conflicts going on at the same time we should have been focusing on.


As much as The Force Awakens borrows from the rest of the trilogy it pales in comparison to how similar it is to Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot. While there are no lens flares to be found it doesn't mean he completely changed his trademark filmmaking techniques. There are people running all over the place seemingly all the time, people shouting at each other as they run everywhere and even when they are flying and shooting. Hey, it's great that we no longer have to watch people sit around tables and discuss things anymore like in the prequels but it is a little obnoxious how everyone is just so darned earnest all the time. Can't anyone talk without breathing heavily and eyes popping out? The other nagging issue is the aforementioned stuffing everything into one pot.

It is hard to argue with the end results as every story arc was either completed or left at an appropriate place to pick up on in episode 8, but that doesn't mean there wasn't some unnecessary filler in there. Probably the biggest and most disposable example of this is when we first meet Han and the subsequent battle that takes place on his freighter. This is related more to Abrams Star Trek because much like in that film when Kirk is abandoned on that ice planet, instead of taking a much needed breather from all the action that came before it we get hit over the head with another action scene that isn't even pertaining to the main story and filled with a bunch of CG monsters that quite frankly felt really out of place. It would have been much better had we gone straight from meeting Han to him getting down to business. Even worse is Abrams storytelling device with how he shoves it down our throats that someone is bad which I won't spoil beyond recalling how he destroyed Vulcan in Star Trek to inform us just how bad that character was.


With all that being said, Abrams does inject a lot of new themes and lore into the Star Wars franchise. The introduction of The First Order could have easily felt like just a copy paste Empire but by creating clear parallels between that institution and that of the Nazi party he has defined them as a completely new entity. Much like the rise of the Nazi party which rose from the ashes of a defeated Germany led by a crazy man who seized the opportunity to prey on the weakened nation, The First Order has risen from the ashes of the defeated Empire and led by a crazy man as well. The comparisons don't stop there either as the idea of taking youths from their homes and forcing them into service of the The First Order and how they even look the part with their decorative uniforms are undoubtedly influenced by the Nazi party. They even have storm troopers with flame throwers burning down villages! The Empire never did that, they just killed you outright.

This is also the first beginning episode of a new trilogy to not end directly after the big battle. It doesn't go like another twenty minutes or anything but it was refreshing to spend even just a little more time with the characters after watching them go through the ringer instead of waiting another couple years to see them again. Even the new score by John Williams is a winner despite there being no real standout piece of new music. But there doesn't need to be, I would take a great film over a great score any day of the week considering what happened with Episode 1 where we got a great score with a weak film. Although the theme written for Rey while on Jakku is certainly a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga soundtrack.


As for the lore, fan boys everywhere have just been hand delivered a wealth of new and interesting insights into how the Star Wars universe operates. From simple things like the fact that Tie fighters can fit two pilots and that the apparently run on some sort of fuel (that is a guess derived from the scene in the hanger) to the new and exciting ways the force is used by Kylo Ren. He is a very angry and unstable in a similar way to how his lightsaber seems to be burning with rage whenever he wields it, but we see his true nature by how he controls the force in ways we have never seen before. Abrams has not only successfully rebooted the Star Wars franchise but has also added many new elements we have never seen before. Who knew the Millennium Falcon could be tracked?

Most of this review has been about its technical merits but I would like to take a moment to express to you how I feel about the film as opposed to how well it was made. While I plan on doing a fan reaction to the film later it would be doing the film a disservice by not laying out for you how it effected me on an emotional level. Forgetting everything you just read for a second let me just tell you that any movie, no matter what flaws, can win me over if it is able to hit an emotional chord and The Force Awakens not only did that it took me back to a time when I didn't used to view films with such a critical eye. For 2 hours I remembered how it was not simply watching a movie but experiencing it.


There are many moments in The Force Awakens that got to me like no other film before it but there is a single moment with Rey near the end (you will know it when it happens) that combined with John Williams score, Daisy Ridley's performance and all the build up to that moment where I couldn't help but shed a tear of joy when it happened and that alone tells me that this is a special film, plotholes and annoying homages be damned. To say The Force Awakens is either a good or great film is besides the point. When that opening text crawl begins so does your awakening to a brand new chapter in arguably the greatest cinematic saga ever told. Go see the film and experience for yourself the redemption of the Star Wars franchise and the beginning of what is sure to be a thrilling new adventure in a galaxy far far away.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

It may be difficult to shed that doubt instilled in all of us thanks to the prequels. What was once pure love and enthusiasm for anything Star Wars had become cautionary skepticism at best and outright spite at worst. Salvation is at hand though as there is little doubt that after the first few minutes into the Force Awakens any and all worries quickly dissipate. It may be hard for some to love Star Wars again and no one is saying the road ahead will be an easy one, but The Force Awakens is leading us down a path of recovery that has been long in the coming. It's a great time to be a Star Wars fan!

Reactions:
Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

 
Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Bluehost