Introduction and Context Setting
I choose to call this movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and not “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” for a very specific reason. The first original Star Wars was called just that, Star Wars. The ‘episode’ moniker did not occur until much later when Lucas created the prequel films, and those prequels were intended to flesh out the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side as Darth Vader. Hence, the prequels were named episodes I-III respectively and the original trilogy named episodes IV-VI, and in the case of the first Star Wars release, the additional name of “A New Hope” was added as well. But before all the changes, before any of the meddling (for better or for worse…Jar Jar), the film was called simply Star Wars.
It is my hunch that the makers of this film are not simply fans of Star Wars for the geeky phenomenon it has become since the release of the first Star Wars in 1977. Rather, they are fans of what the franchise was before the prequels ushered in a renewed era of blind geekdom, just really good story telling science fiction films. Thus it’s my theory that they titled this film Star Wars: The Force Awakens to pay homage to a certain type of fan, the fan that is less concerned with midichlorian counts and more with the magic of storytelling in the form of a science fiction motion picture, the same magic that captivated audiences in what seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; I feel similarly.
I do acknowledge this film as a continuation of the Star Wars universe (and as such the Episode VII moniker is neither knocked against or actively promoted by the creators), but I see this film more for the nods it makes to its roots through the masterful mix of practical effects and visual effects, the use of witty dialogue, and yes, even the naming of the film. What we find in the strategic titling of this movie is what we find throughout the entire film, a 2-hour journey back into a world that some would say only the medium of classic filmmaking can conjure, and I love the ride I just took.
Let me set a bit of context. I am not the type of diehard fan of the franchise that worships the ground on which Lucas walks. I am the type of fan that loves the universe so much that I am willing to offer critiques in a hope that we can get more films like this. I believe this film was made this way because of the critiques of some diehard fans out there. While I can admit that I was gushing for most of the time I saw the movie, I still see this as a movie first, and a nerdy dream second. As such, this review will treat The Force Awakens as a film first. Also, this review is not a super nerd’s guide ultimate complete edition review. If you want that, either what for that article, or look elsewhere.
Lastly, this review won’t have any spoilers. I will keep my references to only what one would know from watching the trailers.
A Return to the Classics
I only saw this movie once. I didn’t want to write this review after seeing it a bunch of times. With each view, I would run the risk of geeking out more than reviewing. I also only watched two reviews of the film. I watched Jeremy Jahns’ review, and Peter Harmy’s review. I chose Jeremy’s because his reviews tend to balance his nerdy appreciation of things with distant objectivity. I chose to watch Harmy’s review since he spearheads the fan project behind the despecialized editions of the original trilogy. The entire project is dedicated to restoring the original trilogy films to how they looked, felt and sounded when they were released in theaters years ago. As such, he offers a unique opinion and perspective on the films that would seem to align with the creators vision of this film. Even Jeremy Jahns plugged these editions of the films on his channel. I found that watching these reviews would help me distill an innumerable amount of thoughts rushing through my head after my initial viewing.
As a Film
Jeremy Jahns put it well when he said that one should approach Star Wars The Force Awakens as a film first. If you check your expectations, then you’ll find that you can have a really great time with this film. As Jahns mentioned in his review, the original trilogy had flaws, and this film is no exception. While I can’t think of any glaring issues with the film, I’m sure that deep diving into it will reveal plot conveniences, technical errors (editing or sound mixing) and other filmmaking blunders. No production is perfect, but nothing jumped out at me as a glaring error or inconsistency. I think this because much of the conveniences or plot devices were employed in a similar way that they were employed in the original trilogy. They facilitated the sense of ‘movie magic’ that I spoke about before.
Moments like this leave you feeling an emotional beat rather than a disruptive hiccup. The plot was coherent. The story was well paced. The characters were adequately introduced through a great mix of visuals and dialogue. The sound editing and mixing (to my untrained ear) was spot on. For example, the force sounds effects they used were outstanding. The camera movement was refreshing, something you might not expect from a Star Wars film (at least not in some time). The score was grand, but tempered, and the character studies relatable. For example, I found myself relating to Chewbacca more than ever before. Remind you, Chewbacca is a 6 foot plus tall alien with a visual aesthetic akin to big foot with a voice that sounds like his mother was a bear and his father was a seal. That goes to show you the character development present here, and the performances from the actors revealed the great casting and direction behind their performances.
In short, the film as Harmy might put it is “pretty good”. I might even go a step further as say that the film is excellent. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen it, and the nostalgia in my heart is tempered. This film is good, and you should go see it.
As a Star Wars Film
As a fan, I found that I was constantly trying to connect all of dots as I encountered in the film. With every new person I saw on screen, I attempted to ascertain whether it was a character that I was supposed to know. With every new plot point, I tried to fill in the gaps from the previous films. For example, what happened in the 30 years after the Return of the Jedi? This is where I believe Jahns and Harmy’s review split. Whereas Harmy found fault with having so many questions left unanswered, Jahns liked that for every question answered there where ten more created. For example, we are unclear as to what the new first order is, where they came from, and what the new republic and resistance is and from where they came. Further, we lack intimate insight into the motivations of the first order or the origins or motivations of the main villains. The political aspects of the Star Wars universe was largely uninteresting in terms of its portrayal in the prequels through boring, unrelatable senate expository dialogue; however, it did offer insight into how the empire came to power. The plot of the original trilogy established that the imperial senate was dissolved in episode IV and that local governors maintained direct control over their respective territories. Did the republic come back together after the Battle of Endor? What happened to the rest of the imperial forces? Did Luke attempt to reinstate a Jedi order? To what extent are non-force sensitive individuals attuned to the existence of the force? What is the military strength and capacity of the resistance?
Some of the questions stem from the nerd in me. Some of the these questions stem from simply seeing the other films. Without everything answered in flush detail, it would appear that what occurred in the previous films had little impact on the constructed universe of the Force Awakens. I would disagree with this. Not only do I enjoy the intrigue that persists by the end of the Force Awakens, but I also understand that the filmmakers had to both address the old and introduce the new. If they spent too much time offering fan service by way of expository dialogue, then the new storytelling would suffer. If they focused exclusively on the new characters, I feel that fans would be less puzzled and more enraged at such a choice. I believe that the filmmakers struck a good balance between explaining the film in context to the Star Wars universe and introducing the new elements. They did this all while obsessing over and succeeding in delivering nostalgic moments throughout the entire film.
Creating the first Star Wars in 10 years is a daunting task, and given the approach of the filmmakers in this project, it was more of a sequel to the original trilogy than to the prequels especially in terms of tone, story and aesthetics. This is why I am not really that upset as what some might consider a recycling of older plot elements from previous films. The creators had a series of tasks:
- Pay homage to the original trilogy in terms of story, characters and aesthetics
- Address unreal expectations from diehard Star Wars universe fans
- Introduce a Silver Screen Star Wars experience to a new generation that only knows the Clone Wars cartoons and maybe the prequels
- Be a technically competent film
- Introduce new characters, new plot and story development
- No suck as a Star Wars film
- Make a ton of money from Disney to justify the acquisition
If the creators of this film attempted to attend to all of this at once, then we would have a mess of a film on our hands; this is not the case. While I agree that one can walk away with many unanswered and new questions, I would compel him or her to understand that this the first film. Also consider that Disney will finish this trilogy by releasing the second and third films in 2017 and 2019 respectively. In between those releases there will be further films, the first of which is Rouge One: A Star Wars Story. This will further expand the universe. Thought Rouge One is slated to expand on events occurring between episodes III and IV, it is this form of storytelling that will come out of these additional film projects. If competent, they can expand on those aspects that the fans really enjoy. As for the Force Awakens, it gives you what you need in order to understand the new elements of the journey, and does not bog itself down in too many details about the Star Wars past we know and love. If someone walked into this movie not knowing a thing about Star Wars, they would have questions, but they wouldn’t be lost or inundated too much Star Wars ‘stuff’. The suspense both satisfies us in for this film, and keeps us guessing until next installation. I think the creators got much of the traditional Star Wars out of their system in terms of plot themes and that the next films will be much more creative, and the box office performance of this film will permit this new expanded exploration to occur.
While I haven’t unpacked all of the drama related to this being a Star Wars film, I find that I do not wish to do so. I am tempering the expectations of this film, and even as a Star Wars film, I offer that it is great and would bode well will future film goers. Overall, the tone of the film is very much old Star Wars. The creators combine a variety of practical special effects that really stand out as stellar examples of the Stars Wars aesthetic. I couldn’t help but be floored at the fact that the film felt so damn real. Both CGI and practical characters are present, and I appreciate many of the Easter eggs planted throughout the experience. While I’m sure that a variety of blue and green screen work was employed during the principal photography phase, all of the locations appeared to be shot on real locations or hand constructed sets. Factor in the varied editing and cinematography, and you get a film that from top to bottom feels like the Star Wars of old with a fresh coat of paint.
The dialogue does not disappoint either with a great mix of goofy yet witty comedy and organic tearing jerking moments. The differing emotional beats were spread out evenly throughout the film, and the plot devices helped set up the interactions between the characters that needed to happen. The score and sound design aid both nostalgia and plot elements, and the performances balanced cartoony with reality. While I’m sure even a passing fan of the franchise would recognize story elements from the past, they do not take away from the power of some of these moments between characters. The original trilogy, even the prequels, are character driven studies sourced from the common tropes found in ancient Greek and Norse mythos, and the Force Awakens in no different. The plot devices facilitate the character studies therein, and not the other way around.
A Comment on Themes: The Normalcy of Grandeur
My girlfriend came with me to see this film. Being an astute consumer of content, she pulled out a theme that I would venture to name as ‘the normalcy of grandeur’. The casting staff picked largely unfamiliar faces for the roles of the new characters. This assured that we wouldn’t be distracted with preconceived expectations about the acting performances. Furthermore, everyone was not super pretty and perfect. In my opinion the leading roles were cast with adequately attractive individuals, but they all are simply people caught in exceptional circumstances. This is a theme that the creators carried over from the original films, and it plays out quite well in the character development, dialogue and interactions of this new story. Nothing appears contrived. Grand things can happen to normal people. These people have emotions and baggage, and as such you the audience member can relate to them all. It’s filmmaking 101 done really well, and by the credits you care very profoundly about everyone in this film. While there are sure to be many other themes in this film, the normalcy of grandeur is the one that stood out to me the most. It undergirds this very character driven story.
There isn’t much more for me to say. I enjoyed the film, and I’d recommend it to most anyone to watch. If you’re a Star Wars fan, even a more diehard universe fan, this is still a no brainer (just don’t expect fan service galore). If you’re a fan of the original trilogy, then this is a no brainer with the understanding that your questions will be answered in the following two films. If you’ve seen the other Stars Wars films, but are not a Star Wars fan per se, then see this film. You will either become a fan right after, or at least have had enjoyed a thrilling film experience. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, but are interested, I’d say wait. Go watch the other movies first (preferably in Machete order with the despecialized editions and a fan edit of the prequels), and then come see this film. If you’re not a Star Wars fan at all and are not interested in Star Wars (or science fiction for that matter), then I’m surprised you made it this far into the review. If you watch it, you’ll be treated to a great film that doesn’t fan serve too much, and this will allow you to understand the new plot elements, and may even peek your interest. If you don’t enjoy it, then it is a competent enough film for you to enjoy, no preface required, no second viewing desired. It won’t waste your time.
While I don’t have an official rating system, I’ve give my seal of approval. Check out my nerd review in which I cover questions the film left unanswered, and talk spoilers in order to offer more of my opinion on the film. I plan on seeing it again in order to feel adequately prepared to write that piece, so stay tuned, and I’ll link in here and on my main page. Until next time, may the force be…that’s played out. Umm…peace and TIE fighter grease.
Imaging Source: Star Wars Website