Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Triumphant, if Imperfect, Return to Form

star_wars_poster_full.0.0It seems like only yesterday that the internet exploded like a poorly-designed doomsday weapon upon hearing the news that Star Wars, the beloved and generation-defining sci-fi franchise, was making a comeback. Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney and production was underway on a brand new Star Wars movie. “Holy crap”, we thought, in virtually every language on Earth and several made-up ones. And in the intervening months the snowball of hype has been steadily building, with director JJ Abrams’ penchant for secrecy only fueling the insane levels of speculation and excitement.

Now, after years of anticipation and a seemingly endless parade of rumors and speculation, the film has finally been released upon the world to dominate every theater for the next couple months. And to the relief of pretty much everyone, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, thank God almighty, good. Quite good in fact. But alas, not great. While the movie does a decent job at getting Star Wars back to what it should be, or at least what we want it to be, that perfection we all wanted remains just out of reach.

But we should still be thankful, because while film we got was a decent distance away from perfect, we still lucked the hell out and got a wonderfully watchable, hugely entertaining, superlatively acted, and less-positive-adjective-ly written Star Wars that sets the stage for greatness, while never quite achieving greatness itself.

Our story begins thirty years after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. The villainous Empire and plucky Rebel Alliance have been replaced with The First Order and The Resistence, two organizations virtually identical to their predecessors in all but name. This is the first indication we get that rather than busting out a new sheet, Force Awakens is playing an extremely familiar tune. Our second clue comes when we meet our protagonist Rey, a young girl living on a remote desert planet whose stagnant life is turned upside down by the appearance of a plucky droid housing key information in the current galactic struggle. Thankfully, we start to break formula a bit when Rey teams up with Finn, a deserter stormtroooper who pulls her headlong into adventure, excitement, and all that other stuff Jedi have to pretend not to enjoy.

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So you’ll notice already that yes, Force Awakens is very unabashedly hitting a lot of the same plot points and motifs as the original Star Wars, spending as much time mired in pleasant nostalgia as it does taking us to interesting new places. As a result, the accusations that Force Awakens is too focused on fan-service can sometimes be hard to ignore. But while it may be working a bit too hard to endear itself to die-hard fans, you can’t deny that it’s doing a damn good job of it, particularly where the visuals are concerned.

Force Awakens is chock full of attention to detail when it comes to visual callbacks, and every time one popped up it blew right past my cynicism and brought a smile to my face. There are so many great details, like how when Finn accidentally turns on the “Space Chess” table in the Millenium Falcon, which displays the exact same honest-to-goodness stop motion effect from 1977, or the Falcon’s turrets having Commodore 64-looking targeting screens. The fan-centric details may be easy to sneer at, but gosh darn it they’re also so much damn fun.

I think of all cards in the film’s hand, the visuals are clearly the Ace, and that doesn’t just extend to the art direction. A friend of mine described it afterwards as “very watchable”, and it’s an apt description. While the camera work, editing and other formal stuff has feels leaps and bounds above the flat, dull compositions and shots that ol’ Georgie frequently hit us with in the prequels, JJ Abrams doesn’t go all-out to try and make Star Wars look and feel like a 2010s sci/fi action flick. Overly quick editing and shakey cam are either absent entirely or kept to a minimum, favoring smooth camera movements and clean, easy to read shots. And some quite beautiful shots at that, like this one of tie fighters flying against a setting sun that left me gasping a bit.

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Getting back to the art design for a moment, there’s also something also incredibly satisfying about the film’s mechanical design, which takes a lot of the familiar Star Wars elements and brushes them up just enough. There’s something very refreshing about spaceships that look like spaceships rather than floating pieces of modern art, either unrecognizable or over-loaded with detail and visual noise. Technical design in modern sci-fi films, from the Transformers movies, to Jupiter Ascending, to even some elements in recent Marvel movies, all seem to be rushing towards trying to look “alien” or “futuristic”, but end up looking over-designed or weird, too far from being recognizable as whatever it is they’re actually supposed to BE. Guardians of the Galaxy was really good about this as well, presenting a lot of mechanical designs with that looked recognizable but still interesting. And Force Awakens probably does it even better. Everything has a wonderfully tactile look to it. Part of this comes from just how much of it is actually there rather than CGI’d in, but even without that to help things, the sets, ships and mechanical whatnots all walk this nice line between looking practical and interesting, rather than just looking like something an art design major with something to prove designed in a computer.

The action scenes, both dogfights, shoot-outs and lightsaber battles all have a wonderful coherency to them, which keeps them exciting but never confusing or overwhelming. It also helps that Abrams also chooses to keep things relatively small and simple. The final duel of the film, rather than some ridiculously over-choreographed battle over flowing lava platforms or “why do those exist” laser barriers, is just three people in a dark snowy forest having a simple, effective lightsaber fight that accomplishes exactly what it needs to without overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome or over-done.

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The large-scale battles mostly have the same effectiveness, although I was rather hoping we’d get a nice, extended dogfight sequence with minimal cutting away like at the end of New Hope. Instead we get more of a Return of the Jedi arrangement with action split between the big starfighter battle going on overhead and the rest of the cast running around on ground level.

If the rest of the film had the same tight, fluid construction as the visuals and art design we’d have a serious winner on our hands, but unfortunately the writing is where things start to get a little iffy.

I think the biggest failing in the script for Force Awakens is that it feels too self-consciously like a “first chapter”, and doesn’t pay enough heed to ensuring that it can function on its own. As more than a few people have pointed out already, there are reams of important elements and questions that the film either refuses to address or assures us will be answered later. Not the least among these half-finished feeling elements is our villain, Kylo Ren, a kind of “Darth Vader backup singer” looking fella who manages to go the entire movie without any kind of concrete motivation. We know he’s a nasty piece of work and not to be trifled with, but we never get much of a hint at what his deeper motives are, why he turned to the Dark Side, or generally why he does have the stuff he does. It doesn’t help that while Adam Driver does an ok job at bringing him to the screen, he doesn’t exactly electrify, especially for the scenes when he has to go without the helmet and Toys R’ Us voice-changer.

And that’s not touching on the multiple times that someone asks pointed, sensible questions and are met with hackneyed answers like “that’s a story for another time”. Look, it’s perfectly fine to leave things for next time. That’s how serial storytelling usually works after all. But the line between world-building and just dodging questions is razor thin, and Force Awakens is sitting firmly in the latter side. It’s almost the same problem that Terminator Genysis had, though thankfully not to such an egregious extreme. When a piece of information can’t be revealed until later, you need to give at least some indication that said piece of information has already been written. Drop a hint, a clue we can come back to later, something that doesn’t sound like “we haven’t finalized the next screenplay yet”. And the thing is, I’m sure they DO have a good enough idea where it’s all going and what the answers to our burning questions are, but frequently TFA doesn’t do a good enough job of convincing us that it’s all mapped out.

The film is just full of these obvious, nagging questions that keep coming up and being quietly told to wait in the corner. Like for example, why exactly are there three major groups at play, the First Order, the New Republic and the Resistance. We’re told that the Resistance are being tacitly equipped and funded by the New Republic to oppose the First Order, but why? Is there some reason the New Republic can’t be openly opposed to the people who 100% ARE the Empire but with a new name and slightly less crappy Tie Fighters? Why can’t the heroes of the film just be the Republic, why must our protagonists be a band of scrappy rebels? The whole film is full of these kinds of small but important questions, and not answering them or at least hinting at an answer feels like either shoddy scriptwriting or a failed attempt at world-building.

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And that kind of somewhat ham-fisted world-building isn’t just limited to characters like Kylo Ren. Take Gwendolyn Christie’s Captain Phasma, the imposing chrome-clad Stormtrooper leader. Leading up to the movie, Phasma was being hyped up as a possible fan-favorite character, a badass name-taker and genuine threat. But, and I’m not hyperbolizing here, she does absolutely nothing of note or consequence in the entire film besides getting captured and buckling under the slightest bit of pressure. I can’t even recall her firing her blaster one time. “Oh, but she’ll be more important in the next one”, we’re reassured. “Great!” I reply “So why not just debut her in the next one instead of having her spend so much of her screen time in this one just sorta….being there”?

And it wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t a perfectly good action beat midway through that Phasma easily could have been a participant in. During one major battle sequence toward the end of the second act, Finn squares off against a riot-baton wielding Stormtrooper for a really fun and well-executed fight sequence, and I have no idea whatsoever why it couldn’t have been Phasma instead of this one, uniquely determined trooper.

The Phasma problem also leads to something else I keep coming back to when thinking about the film. A cursory glance at the IMDB page reveals that, in addition to a host of young, up and coming talents, Force Awakens is stocked with established, recognizable names, many of them given parts that are basically walk-ons. Most notably among them is legendary actor Max von Sydow, who despite being MAX VON GODDAMN SYDOW, is given a tiny role at the beginning of the film before quickly disappearing. In a similar vein, midway through the movie Finn, Rey and Han are menaced by the Kanjiklub Gang, a crew of space baddies played by the stars of the Raid series, a duo of Indonesian action films. And despite all being insanely capable martial artists and stuntmen, the Raid crew don’t throw one single punch. Nothing. Nada.

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And just like with Phasma, there’s really no reason for it. Rather than the ensuing action scene, which sees several literal blobs of CGI unleashed upon the bad guys, why couldn’t we have had something more like a three-sided running battle between Han and Co, the Kanjiklub, and the third group led by that Scottish guy from Let us Prey? The Raid guys could get to throw some flying knees, Finn could try and take one of them on and get pelted with blows before a comedic pratfall, it could be great. It’s not like I’m asking for someone to get a surprise tracheotomy at the business end of a claw hammer, obviously the kind of ultra-violence that the Raid series is known for isn’t going to fly in a Star Wars movie, and certainly not one produced by Disney. But allowing the three ridiculously skilled stunt performers you hired actually perform some stunts isn’t entirely out of the question, is it JJ?

But it sort of begs the question, is a film really obligated to use every single talent it brings in to his or her full potential? Obviously, in a perfect world even the smallest of parts is filled by an actor or actress at the top of their game. And if you CAN get an actor as talented as Max von Sydow to play the wise old man at the beginning of your movie, why shouldn’t you? But at the same time, it seems wrong to see the talents of people like Christie, von Sydow and the Raid crew used on such small, un-developed roles, when they could be bringing so much more to the table. It sorta begs the question of where exactly the line is between a cameo and a small part, and whether or not an actor can be “overqualified” for those small parts. Does the presence of an actor as legendary and talented as Max von Sydow need to be “justified”, or can you just fill a small role with an A-list talent to ensure there are no weak spots?

Either way, it’s still lame that the Raid guys didn’t get to smack anyone.

But to switch gears to the actors that Force Awakens -does- utilize properly, let’s talk about this whole Rey debacle. Since the film started screening, there’s been a lot of squawking from poltroons and men’s rights activists that Daisy Ridley’s Rey, our central character, is something of a “Mary Sue”. To be sure, Rey is depicted as extremely competent, able to take up a lightsaber for the first time and duel with a trained user, or fly a ship she’s never been in before like a seasoned pro. But for my money, that isn’t nearly as irksome as it would have been if Rey wasn’t otherwise extremely interesting and likeable as a character. Yes, she’s -very- good at doing mostly whatever is demanded of her, but she’s also emotionally layered and nuanced, with a good mix of character strengths and shortcomings. She’s confident and driven, but also clings too hard to the past and hesitates when faced with her destiny. She’s occasionally standoffish and short on patience, and has realistic reactions to most of the situations she’s put in. Plus, if you’re really that desperate for her to have a fault, she has a hard time telling when someone’s lying to her in the most obvious way possible. She’s a realistic, interesting character, and that matters infinitely more than anything else you can say about her.

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She’s also one of those rare female movie characters whose story doesn’t involve her romantic relationship with a male co-star, which is always nice to see.

At same time, John Boyega’s Finn makes a great foil. Finn is equally well-played and fleshed out, and comes across as likeable and fun pretty consistently. If there’s any one problem with his story arc it’s that his break from the First Order, an organization he’s been with all his life and we can assume been indoctrinated pretty hardcore by, really needed to be fleshed out more. A lot like Kylo Ren’s missing motivation, Finn’s break from the First Order was missing a crucial bit of background. And not by that much, either. One more scene, or even just a few more lines of dialogue, would have made his betrayal of what we’re led to believe is the only home he’s ever known feel so much more believable.

Oh, and then there’s Oscar Isaac as the dashing Resistance X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron and……really, I got nothing bad to say there. While Ridley and Boyega are both great, it’s clear that Isaac is the most experienced of the newcomers, effortlessly bringing a charm and charisma to Poe that makes his complete absence from the whole second act a damn shame. He pulls off the whole dashing, charming, devil-may-care pilot shtick about as gracefully as Harrison Ford did way back when, and he’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on screen.

And yes, he might very well be gay. I’d absolutely believe it and so should you.

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So there it is, after years of anticipation we have before us about the best definition of “mixed bag” you could hope for in The Force Awakens. Fantastic visuals and formal elements propped up on a script that feels far too much like half of a story rather than the beginning of one. As good as Force Awakens is, and it is very good, it leaves us with too many questions and under-developed characters and scenarios to be truly satisfying. It brings back a LOT of very familiar beats, motifs and story devices, and while the film certainly has a lot of pleasant nostalgia to it, it also means you can’t shake the feeling of listening to a very good cover song. It’s also a bit too reliant on coincidence, but there’s not really much to say about that. Still, with all these faults, Force Awakens manages to be a really, really fun time at the movies and a country mile closer to what Star Wars ‘should be’ than we’ve gotten since at least 1983. But if anything it’s left me far more curious to see what Rian Johnson does with Episode 8 than anything else.

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2 thoughts on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Triumphant, if Imperfect, Return to Form

  1. For a review that makes a point of highlighting how many questions the film leaves unanswered, you left a lot of questions unanswered yourself! 😉 For what my opinion is worth, I would expect every overqualified “small role” in the film was just a case of actors jumping in at the opportunity of being part of “history”. If every actor had been given a role up to their talent, the film would have run way past course. Then again, I don’t recognise these people you are getting really excited about, so longer sequences involving them would have been lost on me.

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  2. Reblogged this on the cinema bliss and commented:
    Reblogging this for two reasons. 1.Thomas here is a fellow writer for ScreenRelish.com and he’s awesome at what he does. Far better than me, for sure. And 2. As much as I’d like to take a crack at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I am simply not cut out for it because… I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars films. It’s hard to swallow, I know. So I’ve taken it upon myself to reblog and share Thomas’ inaugural post to his new blog here at WordPress, and keep the hype going for this new film in the franchise… You are welcome. 🙂

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