Saturday 9 January 2016

The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow

This is the seventh and last entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens!

While the other six films have been out for years, if not decades, this one is still playing in theatres. Unlike my regular reviews, this runthrough contains major spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, I'd recommend that you don't read this until you have seen it. Instead, check out my regular review which does not contain spoilers. It'll post here as part of Monday Night Roundup on the 11th and at the Nameless Zine.

Brief Synopsis

Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order. The Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance and one of its pilots has acquired a map to the location of the last Jedi. However, under immediate attack, he has to secrete it inside a droid and let it go, hoping that it will find its way back to the Resistance.

The primary players are Han Solo, now an old smuggler still working with Chewbacca; General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance; Luke Skywalker, the last jedi, now in seclusion in parts unknown; Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order; Kylo Ren, major player in the First Order who uses the dark side of the force; Poe Dameron, a resistance pilot who acquires a map to Luke Skywalker; Finn, a stormtrooper who flees the First Order; Rey, a scavenger on Jakoo who is searching for her family; and Maz Kanata, who runs a cantina on Takodana.


From moment one, the horror stories that resonated out of the first viewings of The Phantom Menace were forgotten.

There's much that impresses quickly here, even after watching the previous six movies in six days. Things are initially a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But hey, there's Max von Sydow and a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal Lidice type massacre led by a snappier Vader named Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper with the catchy name of FN-2187.
But it's the planet of Jakoo that shines brightest early on. It's a desert planet crammed full of Imperial wreckage: fallen TIE fighters, AT-ATs, even a downed Star Destroyer. A whole community of scavengers has grown up to loot this equipment for parts to trade for food. I found these scenes utterly gorgeous and refreshingly realistic (cue the crossover fan films that place Mad Max on Jakoo). They're also the first time we've really looked at the banal aftermath of the galactic conflict we've been following. They're especially for everyone who watched the destruction of the new Death Star in Return of the Jedi and wondered why nothing rained down onto Endor. I also liked how there's a lot of room on Jakoo, especially as George Lucas can't fill it up for a Special Edition any more.
But this awesome environment gets quickly reminiscent of A New Hope. Jakoo is clearly another Tatooine, just as Kylo Ren is a modern take on Darth Vader and Supreme Leader Snoke is the new Emperor. It doesn't take much to extend the comparison given the little story details that emerge. Poe Dameron is a male Princess Leia, who places secret plans into a droid called BB-8, who's the new hot Christmas item version of R2-D2, and Rey is a female Luke Skywalker, even if she isn't let in on much of why during this film and has to figure a lot of it out for herself. We could even stretch FN-2187, renamed Finn, into a new Han Solo until the real one shows up.

And he does, wonderfully, highlighting that this is a fan film first and foremost and what follows is precisely what a lot of people want to see. Clearly J J Abrams was one of those Star Wars fans who Lucas pissed off with The Phantom Menace, so he played this as safely as he could to make the fans happy. From that angle, he didn't just succeed; this is the best film ever made. It features everything we want to see in 2015 technology with an insane budget to make it work. It's glorious stuff.
Unfortunately, the cracks appear the moment we stop fanboying out and start thinking about things. Sure, all the wild plot conveniences that proliferate like Tribbles could be explained as the Force awakening, given that the title pushes that at us from moment one, but the rest is tougher to swallow.

For a start, the entire plot revolves around a secret map that contains the location of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. Whoa! Why does such a thing even exist? Who creates a treasure map to a human being, who can and probably will frickin' move around over the years, especially if he's trying to remain hidden? Why is it broken into multiple pieces? That suggests that someone expects someone else to put those pieces together. Where did it appear from and why?

It's easy to skip over this, at least initially, because we want to know where Luke is, given how the rest of the old gang have already shown up and also because of the increasingly mythic angle given to the force. Is Luke a myth? Are Jedi a myth? Is the force a myth? It sure seems that way to the vast majority of people a generation after the last Jedi vanished. But, if we actually start thinking about it, it makes no sense whatsoever and this whole house of cards falls.
There is more good here, especially from that fan perspective. We're given the usual wide range of planets, aliens and tech, all of which looks amazing. Rey sets some particularly awesome monsters loose on Han's smuggler vessel: giant rolling tentacle balls of death. Oh, I want one of those! There's a really cool use of future technology when Rey expands a muffin and I thoroughly appreciate that it's treated utterly as routine and not worthy of mention in dialogue. Maz Kanata's cantina on Takodana is a enjoyable modern homage to our old favourite in Mos Eisley. The explosions are the best of the series by far. There's a good, sparing use of the old themes in the score by John Williams. I even liked the Apocalypse Now imagery when TIE fighters fly out of the sun.
But there's more bad too. The story is relentlessly too routine, too reminiscent, too recycled. And it's not just a rerun of Episode IV, whatever people might suggest; it's really a rerun of Episodes IV to VI, from the initial hiding of important plans in a droid let loose on a desert planet, stolen from the early scenes of A New Hope, all the way to the attack on the Starkiller Base after its shield generator is destroyed, stolen from the end of Return of the Jedi. Those cool new planets we see play like Hoth, Endor and Tatooine. In fact, I often felt that I was watching a reinvention of the original trilogy in a similar way to how Terminator Genisys reinvented the first two Terminator movies.
And who came up with Kylo Ren? He's obviously set up to be the new Darth Vader, with his black cape and helmet and a tricked out lightsaber, but then he takes off that helmet to highlight that he's an escapee from Twilight in a Darth Vader Halloween costume and had absolutely no reason to wear the thing in the first place. I'm sure Adam Driver is a talented actor who did what he was asked to do, but he's like Alan Partridge playing Severus Snape while attempting a Tom Hardy as Bane voice and he's an utter joke.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing and my better half burst into giggles every time he took off that helmet because she thought he would introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino. It's like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for a generation of moviegoers, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Frankly, I bought Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet more than I bought Driver as Kylo Ren and he annoyed me more than Jar Jar Binks ever did. There's absolutely no way that this guy could ever be the son of Han and Leia!
Fortunately the other new stars are on the other end of the spectrum. I appreciated John Boyega in Attack the Block and he brings a lot of the depth he showed there to Finn. It's easy to see why Abrams wanted him and he lives up to his casting. He's also the only really new thing here; as much as he's a modern Han Solo, he comes from a completely different background and brings something utterly new to the Star Wars universe. Finn is not merely the first black stormtrooper (like anyone knows what colour any of the others were), but the first who takes off his helmet, the first with PTSD, the first whose perspective we're given to follow, the first to be named, perhaps even the first to actually hit something he aimed at. He does have the possibility of fading through the next two movies, his key contributions done and dusted, but I'm hopeful that he's going to go from strength to strength.
And Daisy Ridley is an absolute revelation as Rey. She's much less of an original character, clearly the new Anakin or Luke to ride the trilogy, but she nails her role absolutely. She doesn't fall into a single one of the many traps Hayden Christensen found in the prequels and, to my mind, she's much better than even Mark Hamill was in the original films. I haven't seen her in anything before but I'm going to seek out her previous three features because there's no doubt that's she's about to be a huge star and I want to see how that talent grew.
To my mind, Harrison Ford rocked Han Solo here, surely giving his best performance of the entire series, partly because his snarkiness plays even better when delivered by an old and worn face. Yet, Daisy Ridley stole the film out from under him, even when hamstrung as a lead character who's full of questions but who doesn't have a single answer forthcoming until, presumably, the next movie. That's very strange writing indeed.


As a standalone movie, this might actually work. Lucas started with Episode IV of an imaginary series. Imagine Abrams starting with Episode VII of an imaginary series and maybe it improves. As part of the Star Wars universe though, a movie with no less than six others preceding it in chronology, it feels like we're missing a movie, especially when we consider the template set thus far.

Given that the prequel trilogy depicts a rise, fall, rise for the Empire and the originals depict a rise, fall, rise for the rebels, then this should be a rise, fall, rise for the First Order. Instead, we get the middle film first, the Resistance taking on the First Order, even though both feel like they've been conjured up out of thin air. We feel like we're supposed to care because it's clearly another rebels vs Empire story, just in different clothing. It didn't take long for me to realise I was watching Episode VIII not Episode VII.

What's oddest, from a progression standpoint, is that, before the First Order start exploding planets with their powerful new superweapon du jour, we're told that the Republic is back in effect and it's apparently been running things for a while. So why is there even a Resistance? Why aren't we watching the Republic take on the First Order? This doesn't make sense.
Background is notable primarily by its absence here. The First Order only have substance because they're copied even more from the Nazi template than the Empire was and there's as much overt reference to Triumph of the Will as Lucas ever included in his films. However, they're just thrown in as the token bad guys without any real explanation to what they are, what they stand for and where they came from. Who's Snoke, their Supreme Leader, and why is he in charge? In fact, what is he, given that he's never on screen except as a gigantic godlike hologram? How did he turn Kylo Ren to the dark side? Why have we been dumped in midway through the stories of all of these characters?

Abrams is more successful at re-introducing old favourites. He brings back a whole host of characters from previous films to give them new life and entrances combining emotion and style. This pageant begins with the Millennium Falcon and proceeds through Han and Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, eventually reaches Luke, who's the MacGuffin of this film but will surely help to shape the next one. The droids get very little screen time, replaced for the most part by BB-8, who serves much the same purpose without any bickering.
Incidentally, Mark Hamill got old too, just like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, but while they look like older versions of themselves, he looks like the love child of Anthony Hopkins and Peter Dinklage.

I've wondered about the pace of technological change in this universe for a while and this film gets even more inconsistent. The First Order have a new superweapon that's a massive leap forward, but they're still flying TIE fighters out of it and taking on X-Wings. The Millennium Falcon was junk thirty years ago and it's still junk today, but it's somehow still able to outfly everything else in the universe. After six movies of R2-D2 leaping into any vehicle like there's a universal connector standard for droids across the galaxy, BB-8 does the same thing here. Of course, the bad guys are still building startlingly long and thin walkways over vast chasms without thinking about adding railings. Apparently nobody gets vertigo in the Star Wars universe.

Oh, and following up on yesterday's realisation that Return of the Jedi was an absolutely ridiculous title for that film, it's precisely the title that should have been used here. In Episode VI, no Jedi return from anything (except Luke to his training under Yoda that never happens) and we leave the film with half as many Jedi alive as when we start it. Yet in Episode VII, the Jedi order has become a myth because most people, at least on the planets we visit, aren't even sure if they were ever real. They believe in the Force like they believe in the Easter bunny. Yet the core of this script is the search for the last Jedi who is finally tracked down in the last seconds of the film. If we could retitle Episode VI to The Force Exits Stage Left, then we could dub this one Return of the Jedi, because it's the only title that actually makes any sense.

Jar Jar Binks

No, Jar Jar doesn't show up in The Force Awakens, as far as I could tell. If the capital planet of the Republic that's blown up by the First Order is actually Coruscant, maybe he was there in the brief scene we see of people waiting for the beam to hit.

However, the fan theory that he's really been behind everything the dark side has done is still consistent.

We have a new big boss bad guy, Supreme Leader Snoke. We have no idea who he is, where he is or even what he actually looks like, given that we only see him in the form of a gigantic hologram that is clearly playing at being God and compensating for something in the process. No background is ever provided, so Snoke could be Jar Jar as much as he could be anybody.

What's more, if we expect the sequel trilogy to follow the rise, fall, rise pattern of the other two trilogies, the only way that fits is from Snoke's perspective because it's the dark side's turn. As he's only ever a transmission, we can only assume that he wasn't on Starkiller Base when it was destroyed, so he'll be back in the next film to show us what other tricks he has up his godlike sleeve. Only time can tell!


Unknown said...

Very much enjoyed reading your review Hal, I could feel your anguish at times (as a fan) when mentioning certain parts of the film that disappointed you. I went to see it twice as the first time was to absorb the visuals and then the second time was to scrutinise certain parts of the film in order to try and see where Abrams was going with it. Firstly, we are in agreement as to why there was ever a need for a Rebellion if the Republic is alive and well (and should have been taking care of any Dark Side development before it got to Starkiller base level!), perhaps more will be revealed in episodes VIII or IX.
I don't think Adam Driver did a bad job as Kylo Ren at all, I don't think it was a good casting job considering who his parents were meant to be in terms of looks but if you were a Sith Lord wannabe you'd certainly consider masking the fact that you look like a High School Musical cast member just to preserve some street cred as such. It was mentioned or alluded in the film that he was desperate to emulate or even supercede Vader as the pin up boy of the Dark Side so the "fashion" tribute was understandable in my opinion. Like you, I was also impressed with the young Brits who had an immense amount of pressure on them to deliver to the watching millions (possibly billions), particularly John Boyega who was tremendously convincing as a bloke who is just winging his way through every situation in order to survive capture. I've got so much to say but I'll just address one more point and we can discuss other points if need be. This is regarding Luke and why he has gone into hiding, it was briefly touched upon that he failed in an effort to train a potential Jedi who turned to the dark side (likely to be Kylo) but the main reason was told to me by someone who is a bigger authority on the saga than I'll ever be. He informed me that the Knights of Ren were interested in Luke's DNA and were going to try and get a sample from him to take to Camino and clone him into an entire legion of "force rich" knights to finally regain control of the galaxy again. It still doesn't explain why there had to be a map leading to him scattered around for people to hunt and piece together though so the jury is out on that one.

Gini Koch said...

Loved this series of yours. I might even re-watch the "first" three movies based on it. I have nothing but disdain for what was done with VII, though. Lazy writing, no chances taken, lame characteristics, no actual beginning or ending that works...I could go on and on. For me, IV is still "the one" and I'm close to only watching it ever again.