And so, 10 years after the most recent installment, three years after acquisition and development by modern-day cinema’s pioneering rock star of sensible IP commodification, a year after a brilliantly pervasive marketing campaign, the new Star Wars film is here, and it’s every bit as strong and as weak in every one of the ways I expected it since that first teaser in 2014 showcased the Millennium Falcon doing a backflip in an elaborate computer-created shot.
Movie Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens
By Ben Gruchow
December 23, 2015
Basically, The Force Awakens is a fan-made Star Wars movie that lives and breathes like a fan-made Star Wars movie; it’s as clear an example of using the mechanics of story (and the emotional back door of nostalgia) to give a fan community exactly what they want - as opposed to what they might not know they need - as any major franchise film of the last several years. It stands to reason, then, that it’s opened to utterly ridiculous amounts of money with no immediate sign of slowing down.
All of which sounds like tremendously venomous assessment when we’re talking about a film that is mostly pretty good, in the sense that its predecessors were mostly pretty good and this is more of the same. It’s silly and shallow and amiable in its adoption of a 30-year-old space opera with a storyline that really had concluded. Then it reaches the third act and begins to fall apart with some alacrity, but I’ll come back to that in just a bit.
In the main, The Force Awakens faithfully recreates the arc and themes of the original three films: we start out on a desert planet called Jakku, which is different from Tatooine mainly in that it has more sand dunes and three fewer letters. A little droid has been deposited on the planet with a crucial set of instructions, and ends up in a fateful meeting with a native. This one is Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley.
A more interesting character (at least initially) is Finn (John Boyega), as a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience and defects. You see, the Empire is still around; for reasons unknown, they’ve taken to calling themselves the First Order instead. Kind of like how a faltering company will disappear for a bit and reappear with a new name and a new slogan, I guess, except everyone in the movie already seems to know it’s still the same people committing the same shenanigans.
Anyway, Finn and Rey find themselves gradually drawn into a resistance (formerly a rebellion), and educated in the ways of the Force, heretofore thought of as a myth. You would think that in a world with lightsaber technology and droids capable of understanding a thumbs-up, the history archives would be more comprehensive, but no: this is still a society where myths and legends are passed along from person to person. This is loyal to the mythic structure of the original films, though. I haven’t mentioned little things, like the way Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is introduced as the film’s primary antagonist: stepping off of a spaceship, he parallels the 1977 film’s Darth Vader not just in looks and movement - but, I believe, in the same two shot setups.
The early passages, with Rey and Finn, are the best parts of the film. The two have a light and easy chemistry, and they are joined by the presence of BB-8, an intriguing new droid that appears to be the rare franchise sidekick that won’t become a liability. Eventually, though, the movie must broaden its scope and dilute its focus; the resistance is explored, we are reunited with Han and Leia (Harrison Ford may have the easiest character in the franchise to slip into the shoes of, but it doesn’t make his relative success at doing so any less of a plus here), and we learn that the primary impetus by the Resistance is a search for the missing Luke Skywalker, who will restore balance to the Force.
How this will occur, exactly, is never quite explained, but that’s not what these movies are about anyway. I am sure there exists somewhere an exhaustive treatise on the ways and means of how balance is deposited to and withdrawn from the Force, but I am equally sure that I don’t much care. The rules of this universe are fairly arbitrary, anyway. At its core, this franchise exemplifies sidelining of logic and reason in favor of adventure, of broad, colorful characters, of inventive creature and production design, and of special effects. These are things that all six prior Star Wars films traded in, to varying degrees.
There is some of that here, too: Jakku is populated in the corners with residents humanoid and non, most of whom are refreshingly tactile. A certain type of cargo on Han’s ship appears to be constructed mostly of tentacles and teeth. I liked the design of the Starkiller Base planet, even if I severely doubted its applicability in any kind of military capacity. There’s fewer of these qualities in The Force Awakens than in the other films, though, and director J.J. Abrams seems content to largely re-use the same designs and schematics from past installments, substituting recognition for invention.
The characters, save for Finn and Rey, are about as thin as ever; the two principals get an extra half-dimension to their personalities. Han and Leia have a reunion that is, I guess, the first in years; the script doesn’t make it clear, and their few scenes together are vague. Kylo Ren is an angry and volatile antagonist, but never a particularly threatening one; he is well-versed in the Force until he’s not, his few small character moments play like screenwriters hitting required checkpoints and beats rather than genuine progression.
Yet for the first two acts, the film mostly holds together on the strength of its actors’ chemistry and on its adherence to the same Saturday-afternoon-matinee spirit that the past films possessed. I was aware that I was watching more or less a remake, but it was a skillful remake of a skillful original, and it still works. Then there arrives a point - I think it’s when Domnhall Gleeson’s power-hungry general addresses the First Order’s massive army of Stormtroopers - where the movie remembers that it’s got stakes to establish and a plot line to wrap up. Gleeson, whose general up until this point has been fairly mannered, suddenly dials the Ham-O-Meter up to twenty-three to deliver a we-will-destroy-the-good-guys speech; it’s here that I realized that the character was meant to be imbued with a context and motivation that had so far not been in evidence.
Then the third act proper begins, with its Rebel Alliance Resistance plot to take out the Death Star Starkiller Base, and the movie takes a massive step down in narrative clarity and rhythm. A character unseen from earlier in the film is reintroduced with a perfunctory and dramatically false explanation, an antagonistic former general, played by a heard-but-never-seen Gwendoline Christie, is dispensed with in a nasty, off-key little exchange that represents the worst aspects of fan service, and the final battle set piece - which is a cross-cut between an aerial dogfight and a more personal lightsaber duel on the ground - is shot and edited crudely and functionally, giving this final segment a halting, fit-and-start quality rather than the building tension that a good cross-cut action climax does.
The action sequences, now that I think about it, are the least-successful aspect of the experience in general; in a film that is framed and lit like a Star Wars episode for the first 40 minutes and like a textbook contemporary CGI action fantasy for the other 90 - all whip-pans and handheld and CGI-aided zoom effects and elaborate tracking shots - the action sequences look like in-game footage from the recent Star Wars: Battlefront more than anything else. Which is great, as far as cross-platform consistency goes, but I can’t help but feel that that’s not what we should have been going for here.
Until the derivative mess of that final act, The Force Awakens actually constitutes one of the few franchise tentpoles that stealthily works its way into favor and affection, simply for retreading ground in a way that doesn’t feel entirely mercenary. And even for all of its storytelling and editing shortcomings, the final act does possess a handful of captivating images: the inclusion of falling snow does some lovely things with lighting and reflection during that lightsaber duel, and we are at least granted the blessing of shots being held long enough for us to orient ourselves and follow the action. I’m compelled to recommend the movie on the basis of Ridley and Boyega’s performance (and, okay, on Ford’s), and on the grounds that it really doesn’t do anything explicitly wrong. I also could not conjure much of a reason to go back again.