The Force Awakens

A small band of plucky resistance fighters make a stand in the shadow of a resurgent empire… and that’s just the reviewers who thought Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a bit… well… meh…

Me included. Sorry folks. I’m difficult to please. If you don’t know be now then you’ll never ever know me, no you won’t…

As time passed and the probability of spoilers being accidentally read on social media, overheard in the work canteen, at bus stops, in supermarket queues, or shouted in the street by stupid kids increased exponentially, I found an enormous sense of stress building inside me. I had intended to wait for the buzz and hype to die down and see The Force Awakens after Christmas, but instead found myself in a multiplex expecting a huge crowd to congregate and munch popcorn in surround sound while kicking my chair and asking stupid questions to each other from the row in front.

However the Cineworld cinema in Burton-on-Trent was strangely empty. It was a late show which would involve me driving home at midnight, but I really had expected more people to be there, even on a Sunday. Not that I was complaining. If I could have watched The Force Awakens in my front room on Blu Ray I most definitely would have done.

CAUTION: SPOILERS, LOTS OF SPOILERS!! FOLLOW >

In a nutshell Episode VII is a mixed bag of Christmas nuts for a long-time fan of the movies. The effects (a lot of them were practical where it was practical for them to be done that way… ehem) were excellent and the acting from the new cast members was great. John Boyega playing Finn is funny as a kind of disillusioned stormtrooper ‘everyman’ type character and Daisy Ridley as Rey seems to have something of Keira Knightley about her which is no bad thing in my book (nerds will know that Knightley had a bit part in one of the prequels playing a decoy princess).

I got chills down my spine when the lights dropped, the fanfare started and the iconic introductory text started to scroll up the screen. The soundtrack was fantastic throughout (helped by the decent sound system at the cinema). The opening scenes were visually stunning and then… well…

The biggest let down for me was the writing – the writers erred on being far too cautious and reusing many scenes or ideas from the original trilogy, especially Episode IV.

The Empire’s New Clothes
The first big scene of the film is an attack on a village with lots of pew pew! action, which in days gone by would be emulated in the schoolyard but is now more likely to just be replicated by kids playing Battlefront. The new bad guys are called the First Order (I thought that it might be a reference to the Order 66 issued to wipe out the Jedi but then realised that they’d be called the Sixty Sixth Order which isn’t quite as catchy) and is more likely just a take on the Nazi’s New Order. The new (old) enemy have a bunch of non-clone stormtroopers who are dressed in natty new suits with a redesigned helmet to make it look like they are smiling while they blast you into fiery chunks and to delight toy manufacturers the world over who were rubbing their hands together in glee over their new lucrative contracts.

Alarm bells should have started ringing as soon as the new droid character BB-8 is given a data chip to look after. The droid is on a desert planet called Jakku, but it might as well have been Tattoine. It is soon befriended by Rey, a lonely orphan type character who has heard tales of the Jedi knights and who flies around the dunes on a zero gravity space vehicle. Sounds all too familiar doesn’t it? She scavenges scrap out of downed Star Destroyers and lives in the carcass of an AT-AT – it’s cool that there’s lots of this stuff lying around on Jakku – evidence of battles gone by. There’s even the husk of a civilian transport vehicle from Attack of the Clones being used as part of a big gate.

The similarities don’t end on Jakku. The First Order have built a planet destroying super weapon. It’s like the Death Star only much bigger. It’s not a space station, it’s a planet. Problem is they’ve made the same mistakes they’ve already made twice – it’s relatively easy to turn off its defensive shields and it has an easily identified weak spot. Does the dark side of the Force addle your brain so much that you make the same mistake three times in a row? Did the evil engineers think *shrug* ‘well, you know what they say… third time lucky…’?

If this gargantuan weapon is the size of a planet then you would expect a really enormous population of baddies and a shedload of tie fighters and suchlike to be available to defend the key areas. It seems that this is not the case. The First Order seem to be a ragtag bunch at best with numbers comparable to the resistance. This is something that isn’t explained in the film.

For instance, early in the film a tie fighter is stolen from a First Order Star Destroyer and they only seem to have three or four tie fighters available to give chase – all the others are in the garage I guess – and only a couple of sets of guns on the capital ship. Finn takes great delight in killing people in much the same way as Luke does in Episode IV, Don’t get cocky kid I thought.

The stolen tie fighter lands on the desert plant and out get C3PO and R2D2… oh no sorry… out gets Finn (perhaps the only original human character in the film) and (unseen by the stormtrooper despite the barren landscape) ‘the best pilot in the resistance’ Poe Dameron played by Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac. These two characters are probably my favourites and BB-8 takes some cues from both Wall-E and R2D2 and is a pretty cute droid. The casting on the resistance side of things is great, not so much on the side of the bad guys.

Father To Son
Another ‘new’ character Kylo Ren was not fully fleshed out enough for me to really care when he finally came face to face with his father on a gangway (*cough-Empire-Strikes-Back-cough*).  There was almost zero dramatic tension. If Peter Jackson had been involved there would have been a prequel scene showing Kylo Ren running amok at the Jedi academy (perhaps killing a few younglings?) and explaining Luke’s absence. We could have then revisited the prequel scene now and again – instead we got a tiny glimpse of events through Rey’s vision when she picked up the lightsaber for the first time. Kylo Ren just seemed to behave like a stereotypical spoilt prince character throwing angry tantrums all the time. Even Anakin in Revenge of the Sith had more convincing inner turmoil.  Also there was no explanation of why Kylo Ren wanted to emulate Anakin.

Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren’s new master (think The Emperor for Darth Vader and you have the relationship, again no reason was seen to flesh it out further) first appears as a massive giant until you realise it’s just a holograph. Andy Serkis is wasted in the role. This was reminiscent of scenes from the original Battlestar Galactica in which the Cylon leader sat in his powerful position above everyone else.

By Your Command
I have no issue with killing off a main character or two. I’m a big fan of the other George (George R. R. Martin) and so I’m accustomed to the event. I doubt they could have afforded Harrison Ford’s fee for Episode VIII anyway. As soon as Han Solo stepped onto the walkway I knew he was a goner. Simply because Star Wars has a habit of shafting people – the Emperor in Jedi and Darth Maul in Menace are two notable shaftees.

What I do take umbrage with is the reactions of long time buddies or estranged lovers. Chewbacca would have gone absolutely apeshit immediately after the event, or at least be a lot more downcast than he was later on. Leia didn’t seem overly upset either to be honest. One of the only scenes Han shares with Leia before he is killed off is spent telling the audience how they feel and providing some unnecessary exposition. It flew in the face of rule one of Screenwriting 101 – show don’t tell. It was a lowlight in a poor script, perhaps only surpassed by the line about flying to the weapon-planet and blowing it up because ‘we’re good at that.’

The other new character is the chrome plated Captain Phasma (who wins the award for the best sci-fi name ever) played by Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones. She gets very little screen time, and yet more than Mark Hamill who doesn’t even get any lines, and I hope that we’ll see more of both of them in future episodes. Hamill rocked the beard btw.

They always say that locations can be characters too, but not so much in this film. The scenery is all very pretty and Earth-like which is great to help ground the film in reality, but I think back and yearn for the splendour of Coruscant, the cloud city of Bespin or the volcanic planet of Mustafar. Again it was all too familiar and lacking any real spectacle.

The Next Generation
What the dickens was going on with the lightsaber fight scenes? How come a completely untrained fledging Jedi and a stormtrooper were able to wield this legendary weapon against a supposed trained student of the Dark side? Kylo Ren was injured, but really? Come on now… He managed to completely destroy Luke’s Jedi Academy but can’t fight off Ren or even properly kill off Finn? Ren’s ability to master both the lightsaber and the force in about half an hour and be a match for Kylo Ren points to an extremely high midi-chlorian count (oh apologies I said the ‘m’ word). So she’s probably Luke’s child and perhaps Finn a distant relation of Mace Windu?

So way too few bad guys, way too few tie fighters and way too few original ideas. The film actually seems more like a reboot than an instalment of an episodic franchise – this is great for first time viewers (i.e. Disney’s key market) but almost infuriating for long-time fans such as myself. As anyone who read my original reviews of The Hobbit films will know I seriously dislike the repetition of ideas already used in other films. Dare I say that The Phantom Menace was actually more original?

If I have to see one more replay of the Cantina scene I’m going to Hulk out and start throwing cinema seats around. ‘He doesn’t like this scene,’ I thought as I looked over at my mate, and added ‘I don’t like it either!’

Like other franchises in other walks of life e.g. Subway, there’s a familiarity inherent in each iteration. So this post-modern take on a Star Wars story is more a reboot of familiar themes and plotting than it is an original film for a new generation. It actually made me want to go and see the new Star Trek film in the hope that it might have more originality in the absence of J.J. than this film or any of his recent outings. I should have read the signs that were there for me to see in Super 8.

I guess at the end here I should provide a qualifying statement. The special effects are very special, the creature designs are great, the two main actors were very good and the two hours flew by like a screeching tie fighter. As a standalone science fiction film it was very entertaining. That’s all I can add.

 

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