Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

star-wars-force-awakens-official-poster

“Every generation has a story.”

Directed by JJ Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaacs, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and… just a fucktonne of good people

Note: This is going to be a spoilerific, wikitastic review. Continue at your own risk.

Thirty years on, a new Republic has risen, but Luke Skywalker has disappeared and the galaxy is threatened by the rise of the First Order, an implacable military-industrial superpower thriving in the absence of the Jedi. Ex-Princess Leia (Fisher) leads a Resistance movement within First Order space (yes, Leia is now a CIA-backed insurgent) while searching for her missing brother.

When ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Isaacs) is captured by sulky Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Driver), stormtrooper with a conscience FN-2187 (Boyega) seizes his chance of escape by rescuing him. Meanwhile, Dameron’s droid BB-8 is carrying vital information and is lost on a desert planet named Jakku, where it hooks up with good-hearted scavenger Rey (Ridley).

With Dameron presumed dead, Rey, Finn and BB-8 flee a First Order (man, I keep wanting to say Imperial) assault in a battered old YT freighter, and the fans explode! Then they hook up with Han (Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew) and the fans go wild again. There follows some business with space triads, razor gangs and CGI beasties before Han takes the new talent to meet Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), a wise old barkeep.

More battles ensue, Leia turns up. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) uses Starkiller Base (a sort of Death Star plus) to blow up Coruscant and annihilate the Republic and Kylo captures Rey. Giant hologram Voldemort (Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke) reveals that Han is Kylo’s dad and the crowd is all ‘whu?’ Then Han and Chewie take Finn to rescue Rey because he finds his inner hero, while Rey busts out by finding her inner Jedi and Poe – who like Tiny Tim did not die – leads an attack on the outside of Starkiller Base.

Starkiller Base is destroyed, but Kylo kills Han when his dad tries to reach the good in him and Finn is badly wounded trying to fight Kylo with lightsabers before Rey kicks all kinds of ass, then flies off to find Luke Skywalker who appears to be having a senior Jedi moment on the beautiful planet West of Ireland.

What’s wrong with it?

We open with Dameron meeting up with an old ally of Leia’s. Who could it be? Wedge Antilles, perhaps? No, it’s Max von Sydow as… that guy.

That guy has a map showing the location of Luke Skywalker which needs to be matched with another map which is held in R2’s memory. And in the old Imperial archives kept by the First Order, apparently. Okay, this central conceit is a bit of a mess.

The film maintains the Star Wars tradition of unintentional awkwardness with white Dameron giving black FN-2187 a name. ETA: Okay; this one is interesting, because after I posted my bro Gonzohistory James pointed out that while I, a Britisher, see Isaacs as white, to an American eye he’s totes Latino. I withdraw my complaint, but leave this here for posterity.

We now have multiracial (I assume; only Finn ever takes his hat off,) all-gender stormtroopers, but equality poster girl Captain Phasma basically just gets to be a) snooty and b) captured.

The badassness of cool, female stormtrooper captain was, I feel, somewhat oversold
The badassness of cool, female stormtrooper captain was, I feel, somewhat oversold in the marketing

Rey’s force abilities are pretty good for a completely self-taught individual, and either the Knights of Ren are really slack on lightsaber duelling or she has some sick natural talent. ETA: On second viewing, it’s really clear that Ren is basically holding his guts in with grit and glue, and using pain to stay conscious, although I’m still a little impressed that neither Finn nor Rey cuts their own arm off.

The Archvillain is a giant hologram Voldemort called Snoke. Snoke. I think I may stick with giant hologram Voldemort.

The space gangs vs. Han vs. giant tentacle monsters is an unnecessary digression and one the movie could easily do without.

Having used the ‘are we baddies’ reference below, I can’t see the First Order flag as anything but a rat’s anus, but that’s really not the film’s fault.

What’s right with it?

Where the prequels took advantage of new technology to go really, really big, The Force Awakens wisely keeps things human. In particular, not focusing almost exclusively on the doings of superhuman trained Jedi makes the story more accessible, and adheres to the type of hero’s journey narrative arc that worked so effectively in the original series.

The new hotness react with appropriate awe to the legends of the past.
The new hotness react with appropriate awe to the legends of the past.

While Poe Dameron is so far pretty much the Wedge, Finn and Reilly each get a really good arc, and more impressively they share screen time and narrative focus pretty equally.

Rey is also an exceptional example of a strong, rounded female character, with strengths and frailties. We don’t get a lot of nuance, this is Star Wars, but she’s a properly self-rescuing, plot-driving, do-derrer, without being a one-dimensional ninja.

The old characters have a suitable gravitas.

I quite like that Kylo Ren isn’t just another Vader, but a much more immature and uncertain character (as shown by his occasional lightsaber tantrums.)

While there are no big shocks – even Han’s death is something that you can see coming some way off – there’s a lot to like because it wasn’t obvious going into the film. This also speaks highly of the trailer’s construction.

GHV’s management style is markedly different from Palpatine’s. Despite Hux and Kylo snitting at each other and dobbing in each other’s failures at every opportunity, when it becomes clear that Starkiller Base is about to explode, he orders them to evacuate and come home.

It’s also seriously pretty. Yay for largely practical effects and appropriate and effective use of CG.

How bad is it really?

The Star Wars prequels failed, on a lot of levels, because they kept all the wrong pieces of Star Warsness, in particular combining almost archaic dialogue with overly flashy modern digital effects. The Force Awakens keeps the right bits, maintaining much of the original visual palette with just enough modern sensibility.

"TK-123... Are we the badbies?"
“TK-123… Are we the baddies?”

The Force Awakens is the Star Wars sequel we deserved. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s at least as good as Jedi, better than A New Hope and… Okay, it’s no Empire, but it’s pretty damn good. It’s failings – and it has failings – are Star Wars failings, and it has the sense of reality and humanity that the prequels lost.

In terms of the franchise, this is a very good restart. It needs a follow up with a much stronger plot to anchor the trilogy, but the character notes are superb.

At first, I admit I found the escalation of the struggle between light and dark side Force users to a full on eternal struggle between good and evil a bit mythic, but in retrospect I like it as a complement to the high-tech superstition of the prequels and the grungy, cynical mysticism of the original trilogy.

Best bit (if such there is)?

The attack on the bar and ensuing dogfight is really well done, beginning with TIE fighters coming out of the red sunset, and later X-Wings sweeping in low over the water against a blue sky.

Total trailer bait, but this was very cool.
Total trailer bait, but this was very cool.

What’s up with…?

  • The map? How is it that the First Order has the rest of the map? Did someone literally steal that whole piece of map from all the other maps in the galaxy, then steal the maps from everyone except the First Order?
  • Luke Skywalker? Why is he missing? How is it that he went missing, leaving a secret map, that has taken this long to come to light, and in which time he hasn’t gone anywhere else?
  • Giant hologram Voldemort?

Ratings

Production values – Beautiful. The effects are excellent, and hopefully less subject to becoming dated than the CG in the prequels. The action is hectic and exciting with not too much nauseating motion or aggressive lens flare. The costumes are note perfect, maintaining the established aesthetic of Star Wars as well as outlining individual characters. Shame about the CGI tentacle beasts. 4
Dialogue and performances – Almost universally excellent, and never less than competent. Assuming that Kylo is supposed to be a tantrumy teen, which I do. 3
Plot and execution – The basic outline of the plot is perfectly fine, but there is a problem with the central Macguffin, which ultimately doesn’t make much sense. 6
Randomness – Giant. Hologram. Voldemort. Also space gangsters. 9
Waste of potential – Easily the best Star Wars movie in 32 years; maybe 35. 0

Overall 22%

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