Film

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Spoiler-free Review

Star Wars inspired my love of cinema.

I still remember going to see A New Hope Special Edition (a re-release) with my dad when I was about seven years old. I remember the day vividly, it was Easter time because I remember an egg hunt before it, I remember queuing outside my local cinema waiting to be let in…I even remember one of the trailers.

And I remember all this because Star Wars seared itself onto my mind. I adored every moment, it appealed to everything inside of me and, unfortunately for my family, from that day forward I was destined to be a geek. The seed was sown that slowly but surely gestated inside me.

The original Star Wars was the ultimate goodies versus baddies story – its simplicity spoke the language of a seven year old boy. Evil guy dressed in black, young good guy dressed in white; that’s really all I understood, I had no idea what an Empire or a rebellion really was, but I didn’t need to, I loved it.

I went on to love not only the rest of the original trilogy but even the prequels. Yes, now’s probably not the time for that can of worms but you can read a defence I wrote here.

For me, The Phantom Menace came out only two years after I saw the original Star Wars and so I hadn’t had time to decipher what Star Wars strictly was or strictly wasn’t, nor had I spent time pondering the history of Anakin or the Clone Wars. So I wasn’t really able to experience the disappointment many older fans clearly felt.

Equally, the prequels were as much Star Wars as the originals for me, there wasn’t a clear dividing line between Jar Jar, Naboo, Hoth and Chewbacca – it was one and the same. Even now, with as objective a mind as I can have, I still think the prequels are given way too hard a time. Sure they’re not perfect, in fact that’s an understatement, but there really are some great ideas in those movies and the real conviction of one man’s vision.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I was excited for Episode VII. In fact so excited that I went to see it at a midnight screening with some Star Wars loving chums (at the same cinema, funnily enough, that I watched the original.)

The sense of joy when that big Star Wars logo flashed on the screen is second to none…I pity people who have never felt such geeky joy (poor folks, probably off having sex or something equally trivial.)

When the credits finally rolled I clapped with the rest – it was Star Wars, it deserved it. But what did I really think?

Well, on reflection, I think it was good. Not a stunning triumph nor a crushing disappointment, just good.

Good is a weird thing to write about. The internet loves hyperbole, everything’s ‘the best film ever!’ or ‘the worst film ever’. And with a movie as hyped and ‘important’ as Star Wars, that feeling is amplified.

But what do you say when a movie is just good?  Where’s the fun in that?

There are certainly some things about the movie I really enjoyed. In particular I LOVED the new characters. If the prequels truly failed at anything, I think their inability to create relatable, sympathetic characters was it. The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air in giving us truly great characters to spend time with. In particular I love Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is a perfect female protagonist. Yes, she’s strong and independent and doesn’t need saving, but she feels incredibly real and relatable too.

Finn (John Boyega) is also a strong addition to proceedings with a back story that Star Wars hasn’t really explored before. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is so natural and organic (words you certainly wouldn’t be using about a certain Hayden and Natalie) that it’s a joy to watch.

I wasn’t particularly blown away by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), he felt a little straight down the line and lacked the conflict of the other characters but I could see why that might be a draw for others.

The film also manages to keep the tradition of strong Star Wars bad guys alive with a brilliant turn by Adam Driver as the evil Kylo Ren. I wasn’t initially expecting much from this character, from his dark dress sense to his weird altered voice I was expecting a Darth Vader knock off, but instead he’s a genuinely complex villain who is both terrifying and engrossing all at once.

Also, gushing a bit now, I love BB8. The droids of Star Wars have always been lovable but BB8 takes it to the next level – he’s basically like a droid puppy and he had my heart in the palm of his hands (or the droid equivalent.) If anything ever happens to that little fella it’ll crush me!

On reflection all these new additions are rightly more important than the return of the original cast, apart from perhaps Han Solo. Seeing the original cast back was as goosebump inducing as I expected but it’s to the film’s credit that it’s the new characters I’m excited about going on a journey with.

This is even more impressive given that the film is so drenched in nostalgia. In fact, at times, you realise you’re watching a very, very expensive fan movie. Abrams, as always, doesn’t bring much in the way of his own style (although, on at least a visual level, he’s a more competent director than Lucas) but instead essentially makes a 21st century remake of the original Star Wars movie.

This is both to the film’s strength and its biggest weakness. In harkening back to the simplicity of the original, when Star Wars was more a swashbuckling adventure rather than an operatic tale of tragedy and redemption, the movie is able to just focus on entertaining – and entertain it does. In fact this is probably the funniest Star Wars movie yet, there are some great gags and witty lines.

But, in sticking so rigidly to the formula, the movie not only feels predictable but at times feels a little unambitious. I get that they’re going backwards so they can go forwards but each subsequent Star Wars film has largely expanded upon and dug deeper into the themes and narrative of the franchise so it’s jarring to take a real step back.

Equally its simplicity makes things (paradoxically) rather confusing from a plot perspective. I went into this movie feeling I was totally unspoiled (I didn’t know what was going to happen) and I left feeling almost equally unspoiled – there was very little plot (bar perhaps one major event) that truly could be ruined.

It’s frustrating that you get no sense of who or what The New Order are, how the New Republic functions and what role The Resistance exactly plays. Sure, I get that everyone’s terrified of going down the prequel route of talky pseudo-politics (which I happen, for some unbeknown reason, to love) but it makes it hard to invest in a story where you can’t get a handle on the stakes.

Again, I know this is an attempt to emulate the simplicity of the original (which so appealed to me as a child) but unfortunately the Star Wars universe is too much of a beast to be simple now. In the original Star Wars you had an evil Empire ruling the galaxy and a rebel resistance fighting back. Simple. Now you’ve got the remains (?) of an evil Empire fighting a resistance that has some sort of government in place but you’re not sure where, and you’re not sure who are really the underdogs.

On top of that there is some absolute nonsense about a map to Luke Skywalker which is so silly and lacking in any form of logic I’ve removed it from my mind.

All things considered you end up with a movie that is the absolute antithesis of the prequel trilogy. It’s got likable characters that are full of heart and natural chemistry, but all the big ideas, themes and endearing pompous have been scraped back to help people recapture the experience they first felt watching the original movie.

And, frankly, it’s not as good as the original. The structure is a bit off, the climax is a bit disappointing – in fact, despite a very good lightsaber battle, it’s probably the weakest climax to any Star Wars movie. There’s nothing to match the original Death Star trench run, if anything the space battles here are at their weakest. It really makes you appreciate just how solidly structured the original movie was.

The biggest compliment I can give to this film though is I’m excited to see the next one. If the plan of this first movie was to introduce likable characters who we’re going to go on adventures with then it succeeds. And I hope with a strong director like Rian Johnson we’re going to get a deeper more complex instalment much like The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope (could you imagine a Star Wars movie as tense and as masterful as ‘Ozymandias’– wow!)

And so, all things considered, you’re left with a movie that’s good. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s got heart but it doesn’t do anything particularly new and its hazy plot hinders engagement. Not the best film ever, not the worst film ever, just good. But sometimes good is good enough.

And that final scene…chills!

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