I could not find a way to review this film without including spoilers. I divided it into a “Mild Spoiler” section (descriptions of characters and certain situations, but no plot twists) and a “Heavy Spoilers” section (descriptions and evaluations of happenings in the 3rd act, no major plot twist giveaways). You have been warned.
I saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens yesterday at the midnight premiere and I struggled over 10hrs today to finish this review, the longest I ever needed for one. The latest instalment of the saga whipped up the emotions in the geek crowd months before even a single picture was published. From the deal with Disney over the choice of director (J.J. Abrams) to the decision to let the old cast re-appear: pretty much any snippet was hotly debated. I would lie if I said I walked into the theatre without preconceptions: I never liked any of Abrams’ movies so far and the kind of development they represent in terms of movie-marketing, franchise-rebranding and fan-pandering, but that’s a topic that would demand its own article. So I was afraid that it would automatically become a heated rant if the film would turn out as disappointing, which it really did. But even after many rewrites, I sadly could not really eliminate all the rant stuff and deliver you a more tempered, organized and objective review.
…to cut a long story short, here it is:
A long time ago… [synopsis]
Years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the shattered Empire regrouped into the “First Order”, which is bent on destroying the young New Republic and their army, The Resistance. For some mysterious reason, their recently vanished Jedi leader Luke Skywalker is a main target for the space fascists. A map hidden in a little sphere-shaped robot called BB-8 could be the key to Luke’s whereabouts, but it gets lost on the desert planet Jakku after an attack by the First Order. Desert scavenger girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds it and together with the recently reformed stormtrooper Finn she wants to hand it over to the Resistance- unexpected help comes in the shape of two space war veterans we know all too well.
…in a galaxy far far away [Mild Spoilers]
It should not come as a big surprise that The Force Awakens is a movie that mostly aims to please the audience with fan-service, as the whole marketing of the last months combined and the choice of director J.J. Abrams, whose specialty is calculated consensus film making already indicated that. But did the makers really strike a good balance between continuing the story and satisfying nostalgic needs? I say no – the way the movie not only references, but clumsily reuses whole plot points from the original trilogy while trying to impose new elements, creates a dissonance in tone that will be even more obvious as soon as the initial hype around the movie has waned.
How Abrams uses the story framework of A New Hope for his own entry into the saga, goes beyond a homage and also cannot be rationalized with the “twin motive” Lucas established in the original trilogy, but is the kind of derivative, uninspired and patchy storytelling the director has already been guilty of a few times before. Indeed, the mix of rehashing the plot of a preceding instalment in a franchise, refined with some elements from other instalments as well as other movies of the same genre is very reminiscent of Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams last movie before this one.
Yet, Abrams is despite the extensive attempts at mimicry unable to recreate the feeling or the simple, but compelling story logic of the mighty first SW movie. Like in Into Darkness, a lot of the happenings are driven by convenience and coincidence, no urgency is palpable as the story tumbles from setting to setting, something Abrams tries to gloss over with spectacle, a swift pace and of course set-ups for several mysteries that should keep the audience intrigued and diverted from the deficiencies in the narrative department. Even a literal mystery box makes an appearance!
It’s baffling how mundane some scenes that are destined to be crowd pleasers, are: Neither the first appearance of the Falcon nor that of Han or Leia make a great impact. There is no great shot like that of Luke looking at the twin suns or Lando approaching the Falcon at the entrance of Cloud City. The way the old crew is handled is rather shameful, more about that below. In general, there are no memorable new scenes and there is a heavy reliance on listless nostalgia triggering callbacks to the old movies to conceal that, mostly in the shape of reheated motives and quotes.
The inadequacy of this pastiche is impressively, most impressively revealed with the newly introduced characters, with whose creation the writers (Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) were left on their own. None of the original characters was overly complex (at least in the beginning) to begin with, but they represented graspable archetypes, which the likable actors breathed life into. But while we could immediately identify with Luke and friends, I’ve got a bad feeling about the newbies. Rey’s fate as the loneliest of all desert scavengers and Finn’s epiphany about the evil of his company, they just left me cold with their heavy-handed characterizations that are more tell than show.
The acting was simply off-putting. For comparison’s sake again, the originals are not exactly known for masterful thespian efforts either, but there have been a few great performances by actors like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness and even in the worst moments, not seldomly provided by Hamill, there was at least a certain innocence and sincerity about the dilettantism. Here, it’s the syrupy, phony, ADHD- overacting style that can be more easily processed into trailer snippets and which Abrams likes to impose on his cast. Even a pretty reliable thespian like Oscar Isaac turns into a one-dimensional space-bro in the vein of Nu Kirk. It makes you miss the nuance and subtlety of the acting in Chris Columbus directed movies.
Speaking of villains, Abrams never had any good ones in his films and this one is no exception. If you thought that Christensen’s Anakin was a whiny annoyance, then check out Kylo Ren, the most misunderstood and butthurt Sith- memorabilia collector in the galaxy. Somebody should have told Domhall Gleeson that he is not playing Pontius Pilate in a Life of Brian remake.
The “New Order” is depicted as an even more ruthless version of the Empire, even a Nazi-like ideology is implied (the old Empire’s only ideology was “be evil”), a botched attempt to add a little more nuance to the black/white schemata of Star Wars. They educate kids as soldiers while they are still babies, yet the former stromtrooper Finn is revealed to be a bumbling mess who mostly serves as a comic relief. A major step down from Lando, regarding the portrayal of black characters in SW, if you ask me. By the way, the humour sucks, as does most of the dialogue; what exactly did Kasdan contribute again?
Then there is one character called Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o mo-capping a CGI-creature), a kind of space pirate and friend of Han Solo, who is Yoda, Lando and Jabba rolled into one creature.
A major sin is that this movie is visually a mess. The first section on Jakku has some neat visual moments, then the cinematographer suddenly started to slack, especially the parts on Kanata’s planet scream “TV-movie”. Neither the bosses of the “New Order” nor the leaders of the New Republic should have fired their original designers, because their ships are now pretty nondescript or even ugly. None of the new, generic designs is particularly impressive, some look even outright cheap and not very Star Wars-y. The Tie-fighters are now able to hover in mid-air like helicopters, an aesthetically appalling image.
Really surprising is the lack of good action, as I thought the movie would at least deliver in that regard. Apart from a decent desert chase that was already teased in the trailers, there was nothing outstanding, a lightsaber duel at the end being merely okay. The showdown is unbelievably underwhelming. FX-wise the movie does deliver though, apart from a few dodgy moments that are maybe owed to the tight schedule of the production.
Now here comes the rant:
Into the Sarlacc: [ HEAVY SPOILERS ]
Remember the common complaint that the second Death Star in ROTJ was a sign of unoriginality? Well, thankfully that cannot be said about TFA because now it’s a Death Planet, called “Starkiller Base” (which looks extremely ugly, by the way)! And in other news, Malibu Stacy has a new hat.
And it’s pretty symptomatic for the whole film and Abrams’ body of work: Not only is Abrams aping the predecessors in a clumsy, inelegant way, he also claims ownership by belittling their relevance. Like he did in his Star Trek movies, by erasing the original timeline and replacing it with a superficial, dolled-up version that bears all traits of his trademarked mediocrity. A passive-aggressive act that was symbolized in the glib destruction of Vulcan.
And the same happens here, by belittling the victory at Endor – the Empire reformed and the New Republic is still a resistance movement and now the threat they have to face is even BIGGER, woo-ha! – and thus relegating Episodes V & VI to mere middle pieces, while Episode IV is quasi-replaced with this third rate knock off /soft reboot. There is even a scene that directly addresses that matter. When the rebels discuss their attack strategy on the “Starkiller Base”, a hologram is shown that compares the size of the new evil star base to the original Death Death star; you see it’s bigger, so you are obviously watching a superior movie. It’s practically a dick-measuring contest with Lucas, right before our eyes (sorry for that mental image).
And don’t be afraid, you will get your glib planetocide too.
The same goes for the old characters: Their arcs are nullified, so the new, far more antiseptic and boring crew can take over.
Also, what about Luke? And there is this twist when… no, I am not gonna tackle those two points. Discussions about those will be haunting the web for the next decade or longer anyway.
Resume [Mild Spoilers]
The Force Awakens is a stilted variation of A New Hope with a few dashes of a “Best of Original Trilogy”- revue, all roided up for modern tastes and filtered through fan service vision, but low on charm. But it’s a fail on many levels, from the copy-paste approach to the story to the off-putting new design and the uninteresting new characters. Watching it is like choosing a cheap Chinese knock-off of a product over the original, just because someone painted fancy luminescent race car stripes on it. You can love it if you really want to, but it will fall apart sooner or later.
It’s a hollow experience and it makes you wonder where the saga is heading at – I think my last shred of (morbid) curiosity has waned though.