Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens review

This review definitely contains spoilers. 

Only weeks ago, I have written about Star Wars and Me and stated that while I do like the Star Wars movies, I'm not anything like a superfan for the stuff. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII from here on out) therefore wasn't something that got my blood pumping like, for example, Game of Thrones did in 2010. I was curious and reasonably excited to see the movie, which I did yesterday. So, what did I think of it? You're dying to know, I'm sure, so let's get into it. 

Right off the bat: I'd grade it with a B. It was good, but not excellent. I would recommend watching it, but only repeated watches will tell whether or not it can play in the same league as the old ones or whether it will be consigned to the "yeah, saw that once, was good"-pile. Just to give some more context to my approach, I had avoided any spoilers aside from watching the trailers and seeing the movie poster and I'm not very versed in the Expanded Universe stuff. Going in, I made three predictions: Han would die, Rey was his daughter and a Jedi, and Fynn, despite swinging around a lightsabre in trailer and poster, was not. While the jury's still out on the daughter thing, I was right on the other two. 

The reason for my deduction is pretty simple: It's a J.J. Abrams movie, therefore adhering closely to the original (that much was obvious from the trailer), which commits it deeply to the Hero's Journey. Since the movie has a very small roster of main characters - Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Rey, Fynn, Poe and Kylo Ren - assigning roles wasn't all that difficult. Giving new and interesting characters the main roles to reprise Luke and Han, while making Han into Obi-Wan, for example, was as obvious as making Obi-Wan the Point-if-View-character in the prequels. Which shows you that some people tend not to do the obvious stuff, and I'm glad that Abrams mostly did. 
Good dogfights, for example.
Episode VII isn't high art, and it doesn't pretend otherwise. The plot is pretty basic, and especially in the first half extremely entertaining, funny and well paced. The introductions of all the new characters work very well. Kylo Ren is a sufficiently menacing presence, Rey is killing every scene she is in, Fynn and Poe are instantly likeable and Stormtroopers still can't hit shit. Despite paradoxically being darker than the previous movies, the movie feels more light-hearted, more in line with the old ones, which is good. 

Storywise, the thing derails a bit when Han and Chewie show up. Abrams wisely eschews too much exposition, so you have to rely on Ford's and Fisher's performances to fill the gaps in your headcanon, which works surprisingly well. But the story slows down in these segments, which is especially noticable in Maz Kanata' Temple? Something like that. The scene seemed either too short for all the stuff that was alluded in it, or too long, so the attack of the First Order couldn't have come sooner. 
The by far biggest issue of the movie and the main reasons it fails to break into A-territory for me is the contrivance of the Starkiller Base. What the hell did we need that for? It came pretty much out of nowhere and, worse, had no real emotional impact. Why the base? Because the bad guys always have one. Why do they shoot at...what exactly? Moons? I have no clue. Something about the Republic. The only thing missing on this station was a dispute about trade policy. So when they blew it up in the end, it was more like "yeah, of course they do".

But that's about all I didn't like. So let's have a look at the things that stood out well for me, before I want to talk about some stuff I have no idea about how it will play out.

What was really good was the effect work. I guess I don't need to heap on the pile of "pracical effects versus CGI fest", but what really did stand out to me was the physical effect much of this stuff had. The decision to not do space battles but instead let them fight it out in the atmosphere was a good one, because it forced them to give it a feeling that's more real. So, dogfights, very good, aided by some camerawork that gave exciting angles. My personal highlight was the chase for the Falcon, but the other ones were pretty good as well.
Also, good design work.

Even more noticable were the melees. Lasers really hit people, throwing their bodies around. Yes, I know that's unrealistic, but who cares? It looks great when Chewie's bow throws stormtroopers against the wall or when the X-Wing ground attack pales every Stuka. But the best result for this was the lightsabre fights. Instead of the weightless chugging and jumping around of the prequels, Abrams squarely got back into the method of the old, telling stories with the lightsabre-fights. Finn's loss against the stormtrooper was nice, showing the menace of the First Order as well as his own insecurity, with his fight against Kylo Ren a suitable follow-up. Kylo and Rey had instant fight chemistry, her getting stronger with every parry, he getting visibly shaken by the experience. So, very good in that department. I can even get behind the laser broadsword idea.

What I also really like is the character of Kylo Ren himself. I understand that he is kind of a polarising presence, with some people really hating him, but this is where Abrams really tried something new. Ren, despite pulling off two nice tricks, is very untrained, and his "being tempted by the light side" is a nice touch, as well as his reverance for Darth Vader. All of the character traits are only hinted it, and I expect Kylo Ren to get more fleshed out in the sequels, but I like what I see.
Kylo Ren, like he sees himself

So, what might problematic? For one, the whole "quest for Skywalker" thing, while sufficiently motivating the plot, might prove a pretty big logic hole further down the road. Right now, I don't get why Luke went into hiding the way he did. I mean, conceivably, he could have prevented an awful lot of the bad stuff in this movie had he not let behind the map, and R2 in "standby" wasn't the most clever plot device ever, neither. If I was Leia, I'd be pretty pissed about baby brother right now. But again, maybe there is more to it that we will learn in the next movie, so let's see.

What might or might not work is Snoke. Seriously, the ultimate bad guy is named Supreme Leader Snoke. This sounds like something a 5-year-old came up with, but ok. He's not enough in the movie to see where this is going, and I hope he's not just the emperor redux, but again, this figure could conceivably be a weak point as well.

But, hey, in the end, it's a thoroughly entertaining movie, it's Star Wars at its best (and worst), and we will watch the next movies anyway, so let's just humm the damn song and rewatch it.


  1. No word on the real hero BB-8...

    1. Didn't think it was necessary. I mean, fuck, who hasn't said yet that BB8 rocks da house?

  2. Nice review, Stefan. This was pretty on point with my own impressions. I found that I liked the film a lot more after viewing it a second time. The film certainly has its flaws, but I believe that it's potentially a great opening for the new trilogy. Only time will tell.

  3. I agree with you and Sean on most points, except I have to ask how you could possibly think Rey is Han & Leia's.

    Did Leia have her in secret and then get amnesia or what? I thought it was pretty clear that Rey had to be either Luke's, or the pisswater princess.

    - His Radiance, Supreme King Snuke.

    1. If she is, Han clearly doesn't know. But Leia might; her demeanor is left open to interpretation. And one theory goes that Luke simply deleted all their memories. We'll see. As we said, we're not much into Star Wars speculation.

  4. Steffan. I like listening to your talks with Sean on BLAH. You are clearly an intelligent fellow. Which is why I don't understand why you are giving thumbs up to this film. Which is essentially nothing but a lazy re-telling of the first SW film with new characters. It is a desecration of art.

    1. Because it was quite fun. Besides, I'm not saying it's great. It's a decent movie.

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