When I reviewed the two season premieres for Rebels, I commented that I’ve generally been happy with Disney’s treatment of the franchise. However, I should clarify this was mostly approval of how they were handling the television side of things. Their plans for cinema have caused doubt in my mind, mostly for two major reasons. The first is that I like the prequels. Yes, I know it’s the popular thing to absolutely hate them and I’m not calling them perfect, but I generally have no problem counting these as part of the canon and watching them for intended entertainment. The second is that Disney’s plans were to start off with films set after Return of the Jedi.
Sure it’s silly to think a force as vast as the Empire would fold after losing a single battle (a fact Robot Chicken famously lampooned) but I liked the closure that film gave on the troubles of the Skywalkers and the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith. This was part of why I never bought into the now-discredited Expanded Universe, which had the war drag on for decades while reusing the same story beats. So when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was announced I wasn’t happy that promotion suggested it was embracing that ‘everything in the previous films was for naught’ mentality.
I’ll stay away from major spoilers (mainly because my colleagues have threatened to drop me in the Pit of Carkoon if I don’t), but luckily the basics of the plot have been made known in advance. Following on in relative real time from Return of the Jedi, we find the galaxy facing an active war between the New Republic (who sponsor a Rebel Alliance successor referred to as the Resistance) and the First Order, the reborn form of the Empire. Luke Skywalker has gone into exile for reasons unknown, leading Leia tasking a trusted agent with a mission to find her brother. The First Order becomes aware of this and makes it their mission to prevent the recovery of the famed Jedi, leading to a new generation of heroes stepping up to fight to restore freedom to the galaxy.
I wasn’t really a fan of the notion of returning to the Star Wars galaxy just to invalidate all the heroic struggle thus far, and sadly that is essentially what we get. In a lot of ways this is a grim movie, and although a lot of it is based on intriguing concepts for what could have happened next, it burdens familiar faces with a lot of pain. This isn’t helped by the poor job the film does of explaining the status quo of the era, which both A New Hope and The Phantom Menace both managed better. In fact this is one of my misgivings: knowing that a majority of people disliked the prequels, this film tries so hard to serve up the fan-favorite elements of the original trilogy that at times, it seems to lack its own identity and feels more like J.J. Abrams is sat next to you occasionally elbowing you in the side to say “Eh? Remember when THAT happened in A New Hope?”
The clinginess to the original trilogy extends to our new villains. Kylo Ren is an intriguing concept for a Star Wars villain, but as trailers show he’s simply a Darth Vader wannabe garnished with a dash of Marvel Cinematic Universe Loki. His boss is likewise a poor man’s Palpatine. The First Order as a whole is an awkward mix of acknowledging the iconography of the franchise while pushing it just that little too far. This is still the faction who blew up planets to rule by fear in the first movies, but a lot of the cheesy fun that made the Empire the villains you loved to hate is replaced by stark brutality and fascist parallels that are a bit too intimidating. I’m pretty sure the Stormtroopers even perform a variant of the Nazi salute at one point.
Much has been made of J.J. Abrams’ intent to use practical effects as much as possible over George Lucas’ preference for CG, and while I salute this as a model design graduate, the results aren’t perfect. The practical effects are very inventive but near entirely focussed around the chunk of the film occurring on the desert planet of Jakku. CG is perfectly implemented for ships but not so well for organics. There’s an action sequence about halfway through the movie involving escaped beasties which look and move far too cartoonishly, especially compared to new alien creatures we saw a decade prior in the prequels. In fact, everything about this sequence feels like it belongs in Abrams’ Star Trek, not Star Wars. A new antagonist also looks almost exactly like the lead Orc in Peter Jackson’s controversial Hobbit trilogy.
So far, I’ve been pretty down on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I should be clear that I don’t feel it’s bad. The moments of emulation seem to be there mostly to convince people that Disney ‘gets’ Star Wars and knows why it has endured in hearts, which is something you arguably need to establish when you’re the new owner. One of the definite things I’d like to praise is the cast. Of the returning cast, I was most concerned about Carrie Fisher, given her voice has changed the most and she’s dropped some pretty acidic comments against the films and their fans, but she’s quickly believable as Leia thirty years later. Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew are in perfect form, even if I question the directions taken with their characters. Anthony Daniels is the only one I really take issue with, given that C-3PO really isn’t needed in the film and Daniels has so readily returned to the role that it’s not as big a deal hearing him once again.
Of course I can’t ignore the new talent. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac all deliver brilliant performances as Finn, Rey and Poe, respectively. These are all new types of characters but ones that instantly feel right for Star Wars. Again, I just wish the antagonists were this well handled.
I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3D and it certainly adds to the fun. 3D effects are usually restricted to adding depth so that your focus is on dialogue and acting, but when you hit action moments you receive cool effects like TIE’s seemingly coming into shot by directly flying over you or an unimaginably huge Star Destroyer lumbering into the theatre. 3D has often been a misused gimmick, but this film takes best advantage of it.
I think if you’re a fan of Star Wars you’ll enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens quite a bit. It is a lot of fun and was clearly made by those who are fans themselves, but a lot of the time it feels like someone boiled Star Wars down to a list of iconic ideas/concepts and just made sure the film used all of them, to the point I actually think this film might get people to cut the prequels some slack since at least they had more originality. I don’t support Disney’s plan to release yearly Star Wars movies, but this one was fun enough that I’ll at least be coming back for the eighth episode and hoping it will have improved on this one.
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