Movie Review - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
There certainly has been a reversion of the look, a reversion from what the look was in the last installment, Revenge of the Sith (2005). George Lucas filmed that movie using the Sony CineAlta, a digital camera that recorded video in HDCAM format, a step forward helping to usher in the age of digital filmmaking. JJ Abrams filmed this movie using the Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 and the IMAX MSM 9802, which is to say on traditional 35mm and 65mm film, which is closer to the format used in the 70's.
That being said, the look of the film is gorgeous. Abrams brings back some great visuals. From sweeping deserts to snow-sprinkled forests, there is a breath and depth, as well as tactile nature to his images that give each scene weight that Revenge of the Sith or the two previous lacked. The computer-generated effects have a weight to them that the ten years since Revenge of the Sith has undoubtedly mastered. In short, I believed I was in the various alien planets that Abrams takes us and I believed the fantastical aliens are absolutely real and interactive. Abrams embraces a lot more practical effects and actual set locations than Lucas, so that helps. He also plays with his infamous lens flair critique in a funny way.
What's also noticeably different is that Abrams' film has a pace that is very energetic. It's almost non-stop with action, and the characters moving from place-to-place. It takes breathers here and there, but barely. Pacing is something that Lucas didn't seem to appreciate in his three previous films. Comparatively, those films were inert and languid. Revenge of the Sith did have some good action beats every now and then, but this film feels like there's action continuously.
This fast pacing is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because Abrams ensures that his audience will never be bored. Any movie-goer should be properly entertained. The action scenes, which include space-ship chases and laser battles between stormtroopers and rebels, are well-choreographed and are buoyed with a good sense of humor and laughs throughout, mostly thanks to the comedic timing of John Boyega.
John Boyega stars as Finn, a storm-trooper that works for the First Order, an organization that from the imagery could be mistaken for Nazi Germany or the North Korea government. Remember the original Star Wars. The First Order is just this movie's version of the Empire. The stormtroopers in fact were the military force of the Empire from the previous films, so it's weird why they wouldn't just call the First Order the Empire. There was some convoluted explanation for where the stormtroopers originated, but Finn apparently was abducted at a young age and conditioned to be a dutiful soldier. Yet, whatever brainwashing was employed has failed for Finn, formerly identified as FN 2187, so instead of shooting lasers and killing people less he be killed, Finn decides to escape the First Order. The film follows his escape attempt.
Daisy Ridley stars as Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet called Jakku. She spends most of her day rummaging through the wreckage of various space-ships that have crashed landed and been abandoned on Jakku. She brings back parts to a junkyard dealer who pays her in food rations. How she got there is a mystery, as well as who her parents are. Yet, she seems very strong and capable of taking care of herself, which is what she does. Ridley also has a young Keira Knightley vibe to her.
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year) co-stars as Poe Dameron, a skilled pilot who works for the Resistance. Remember the original Star Wars. The Resistance is just this movie's version of the Rebel Alliance in which Princess Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, was a leader. Fisher reprises her role, except this time around she's General Leia Organa. Through Poe, we get the same basic premise that we had in 1977. Remember the original Star Wars when Leia put a secret message in a little robot called a droid and sent it down to a desert planet. This time, Poe does the same thing, only the droid isn't called R2-D2. It's called BB-8.
The movie progresses to hit so many familiar beats from the 1977 film and echoes scenes back then almost to the letter. It's colorful and fun, but it always feels less than, certainly less than Creed, which spiritually did the same thing. One problem is that while BB-8 is a colorful and fun character, it's not as functional or necessary to the plot as R2-D2. It has a more interesting design. It's a robot in the shape and size of an exercise ball, but it could have been destroyed after the second reel and no loss what have been felt.
What doesn't help is that this movie doesn't have the emotional resonance of Creed or the original Star Wars. Not much is given that helps us care about the characters, particularly the new ones. As pointed out, Rey's back story is sketchy or not revealed at all. It's hinted, but in effect Rey is the Luke Skywalker of this film. Yet, Luke was given a history and a more firm reason for setting off on his journey that made us care for him. Rey isn't given that same firmness or any at all.
A bit of romance develops between Rey and Finn, or at least that's what we're supposed to think. There is a vibe that mimics Leia and Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford who reprises his role here. Rey and Finn have somewhat good chemistry between each other, a good rapport, but I feel like Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt should have done more to build that bond beyond just surviving near death together. By the end, I just didn't buy much more between them than a good friendship, which might have been Abrams' aim. I just wish there were more.
Being that this film was intentionally built to be the first part of a trilogy, I suppose I can't complain about all the dangling threads. It has been 30 years since the story of Luke Skywalker ended in Return of the Jedi (1983). Apparently, a 32-history has been conceived and it unfortunately isn't fully addressed in this film. What separates this from Creed and its success is that Creed didn't pretend like the time in the middle or the events in the previous movies didn't matter. This film does pretend like the events in Return of the Jedi didn't matter. They don't inform anything here.
The original Star Wars trilogy was about blowing up the so-called Death Star over and over again. In this film, the Death Star is called the Star Killer but it's the same thing and again this movie is about blowing it up. If you're wondering if the Resistance succeeds in blowing it up, then you clearly haven't seen any film involving Luke Skywalker at all.
Adam Driver (While We're Young and This Is Where I Leave You) also co-stars as Kylo Ren. He's the son of Leia and Han Solo who is kind of the Obi-Wan Kenobi of this movie. Except, Kylo is basically the Darth Vader of this movie, so you can guess where it leads. Only technically, Kylo is Darth Vader's grandson. How he became this Darth Vader type is really, really sketchy and his history needs to be dissected because that evolution is a jump that defies the sense left by Return of the Jedi, which is certainly to be delved in the next films.
Other than that, I'm only bummed that Leia who is supposed to have the Force doesn't use it. What's up with that?
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 15 mins.