Directed by J. J. Abrams
Starring John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver & Oscar Isaac
Film review (WITH SPOILERS) by Alfie Shaw
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens works best when it is focused on its own plot, which is a shame, as it seems so hell bent to not only set up the rest of the trilogy, but also refer back to the original films at every chance it gets.
Helped in part by a plot structure similar to the original film, it delivers a fun and engaging piece of entertainment. Visually, The Force Awakens is a delight. Each dogfight or sweeping landscape is beautifully shot, with J. J. Abrams drastically cutting back on the lens flare that plagued his Star Trek films. Each planet the action shifts between benefits from a thorough level of design – easily convincing the viewer of not only how diverse this universe is, but lived in. It’s this eye for detail that will suck you in and the action moves from each locale at a steady pace. The two and a quarter hour run time zips by, and never once lets up.
Where the film succeeds in balancing the past and the present is its careful balancing of the new and ‘legacy’ characters. Leia, Han and Chewbacca are each given a large share of the screen time, but they compliment the new arrivals rather than overshadowing them. Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn are incredibly likeable from the off, and the film gives them both room to breathe and develop. The pair’s relationship is one of the core foundations of the film and also one of its strengths.
Finn and Rey’s romantic attachment to each other is handled deftly, with simple touches, and is never allowed to overshadow the main plot. It aids in their respective developments instead of stifling either of them. Similarly Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren debuts as a fully rounded villain. He is quickly established as a vicious warrior, an imposing presence and deeply insecure within his first few scenes. It was a smart move to help distinguish him from previous villain Darth Vader. Vader was minimalist and in control, whereas both Ren’s fighting style and personality are erratic and unpredictable. The new cast is not a carbon copy replacement of the original characters and this is one of the aspects that make the film shine. However, it must be noted that some characters (such as Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux in particular) come off as one-note due to limited involvement in the narrative. It’s a shame that Captain Phasma turns out to be a throwaway character with the whole purpose of the character being to set up a single, but still rather good, reference to the first film.
This underpins one of the main issues with the film. Abrams did have a difficult task to balance the old with the new and too often favours winking back to the previous films. The soundtrack in particular is guilty of this, relying heavily on familiar stings and motifs from episodes IV through VI, and contributes to the feeling that the film is screaming, “LOOK, WE MADE STAR WARS AND WE MADE IT GOOD. WE’VE GOT THE MUSIC AND THE SCROLLY TEXT AND EVERYTHING,” at you. More variety in the music would have been appreciated and helped to differentiate it from the previous films.
Whilst the film’s mirroring of Episode IV’s structure ensures the fun tone and bedazzling space battles, it also complicates the plot. One of the main issues is Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Smoke. The character is fantastically realised, setting an imposing and sinister tone whenever on the screen, but his existence has never been acknowledged in the Star Wars canon. Whilst this was acceptable when Palpatine did likewise in The Empire Strikes Back, the crucial difference is that we only have one film for it to fit into in terms of continuity. The Star Wars universe is now seven films long and spans two major time zones. Not once is the towering, able-to-train-Sith Lords zombie-looking fellow mentioned. Not once! His presentation in the film sets him up like he could easily go toe to toe with Yoda in his prime, but we’ve never heard of him!
This problem with backstory also applies to a lesser extent with Rey. The film alludes to the fact that she’s left her family behind on Jakku and they’ve come to some tragedy, possibly death. Since we don’t know those people and are only shown them briefly, it’s hard to invest in this plot strand and adds unnecessary baggage to the character. Where the film succeeds is the introduction of Finn and Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac). They are introduced as Stormtrooper and ace pilot respectively and their stories unfold from there. Like Leia and Han Solo in the original trilogy, it doesn’t matter where these characters came from; we’re enjoying the adventure they are on. Each of the new characters is painted quite broadly in the tradition of the space opera genre, but the fantastic performances help ground them.
The Force Awakens also suffers from bizarre plot points, particularly in its latter half, and it’s strange a film that gives so much attention to its world building allowed these to slip through. In particular Daisy Ridley’s Rey goes from thinking the Jedi are a myth to just happening to be able to do Jedi mind tricks without anyone training her. Luke can’t even manage to do it until Return of the Jedi and yes, whilst Anakin does learn to do it between Episodes 1 and 2, he still hasn’t learned to act by the end of Episode 3. In contrast with Luke, her use of the force is based entirely on the audience knowing that Jedi Mind Tricks are an option, but as a character she has no way of knowing. The level of credulity is then spread even thinner when, during the climactic fight, Rey is about to kill Kylo Ren and the ground literally separates the two, which saves him. I don’t care how important it is that your big bad survives to the last film, that is a Deus Ex Machina if ever I saw one. It’s a shame as a series that is propelled by imagination uses such a clichéd get out.
The last major bit of nonsense the film pulls is in relation to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). During the build up to the film, much of the hype revolved around Luke’s role in the plot. Well, I’ve now seen the film and still have no idea. Sure, he functions as a great McGuffin. Everyone wants to find Luke, basic plot arc for the film. However, he receives a similar amount of screen time to Jar Jar Binks in Revenge of the Sith and has the same number of lines (none). The twist of him doing nothing was incredibly underwhelming, the upshot of which wasn’t me leaving the film going ‘well that was awesome,’ but rather ‘what was the point of having Luke in the film at all?’ It’s here that Episode VII suffers for having to set up a future film. I’m certain that in the future, when we are able to view the trilogy as a whole, it will be seen as a necessary step. In the context of a standalone film however, it just feels like a sucker punch.
The other main sticking point of the film is that the whole thing is so utterly predictable. Yes, they don’t really try to hide Kylo Ren’s identity as it’s revealed early on, but you can pretty much guess his identity from the off. What’s worse is Han Solo’s death. As soon as they set off to the Starkiller base, you can pretty much tell that this is Han’s last flight and as soon as he gets into the giant chasm place, you can tell he’s a goner. It was a fantastic scene, with Ren killing a fan favourite instantly cementing himself as a completely evil villain. It is such a pity that he is pretty much beaten convincingly by Rey in the subsequent fight as it reveals the flaw in contrasting Ren with Vader. Vader was scary and imposing because he won for two and a half films. Having Ren lose in the first of the trilogy (even on the promise of ‘let’s get him better’), makes him suffer as a credible threat. Rey practically kills him first time and she’s about to be trained by Luke.
To the credit of The Force Awakens, it is a film that I actively want to go and re-watch. It has both substance and style, but is punctured with moments that were baffling, either by their reliance on cliché and audience knowledge or not following the established in-universe logic. The references to the older films are implemented extremely well in places, but their overuse is wearing on the viewer. It suffers from the same problem that the Marvel films are currently experiencing. By being part of a larger universe, plot holes are created by not addressing how all of the new elements fit into the franchise. It also has to set up for future instalments and while The Force Awakens sensibly doesn’t dedicate too much time to this, it does result in some unwanted plot contrivances. The strong interplay between the characters, as well as the all-round excellent performances and visually sumptuous set pieces go a long way to help make up for this. It’s old school Star Wars, where the lightsaber fights were duels, not streams of barely named Jedi fighting mindless droids, where you’re invested in if the characters survive the set pieces instead of wishing they’d died, where no one once mentions trade routes or any other kind of economic problems! So, despite some irksome flaws, I can’t help but recommend you go see the film. It’s not only a good film, but also a good Star Wars film. It’s got the music and the scrolly text and everything.
Watch the Teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens below...