Nearly two decades after the first of George Lucas’ widely reviled prequels there’s a new Star Wars film, something which for a long time just seemed like an impossibility until Disney bought Lucasfilm and with it the Star Wars franchise.
J.J Abrams was hired to attach some jump leads to the franchise much like he did for Star Trek back in 2009 and along with co-writer Lawrence Kasdan he does a distinctly better job than the last Star Wars films to grace the big screen. That though isn’t saying much and it should be noted that The Force Awakens is far from a great film. Whilst there are some things that work really well there are plenty that don’t which drag the film down.
There will be major spoilers so anyone who has yet to see The Force Awakens should probably stop reading if they’re concerned about that sort of thing.
Set three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire now there is a new threat The First Order which wants to dominate the galaxy. The Resistance lead by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and backed unofficially by The Republic are fighting against them. Meanwhile Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) has disappeared. The Resistance has sent a fighter pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to try and track down the whereabouts of a map said to lead to Luke Skywalker’s location.
One of the first things to note about The Force Awakens is that it is intentionally very similar to the first film in the franchise, 1977’s A New Hope, the plot centres around trying to destroy a new considerably bigger version of the Death Star called Star Killer. There are numerous scenes which are reminiscent to those seen in the first film. This is done in a knowing way though and Abrams is well aware that nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of the new Star Wars films.
So what does The Force Awakens get right?
One of the impressive feats Abrams has achieved is blending the new and the old in a way that doesn’t feel forced or grating. Whilst the story starts on the sand blasted planet of Jakku where Dameron , Rey (Daisy Riddle), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are first introduced it doesn’t take long for familiar sights and faces to show up and when they do they are well utilised.
There are numerous nods to the original trilogy both visually and via dialogue which are well done and not just clunky fan service. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) first show up it’s slightly surreal. Ford despite his advancing years is flawless as the now older but still as rogueish Solo and his relationship with Chewbacca, that of a bickering married couple, is responsible for some of the films best comedic moments. This isn’t just shameless fan service either the pair are worked effectively into the narrative.
There’s definitely a sense of fun throughout too, with several scenes being played for humour, even if it’s a dark sense of humour. This is something which was distinctly missing in the prequels.
One of the undeniable new stars though is new droid on the block BB-8 who has featured in the films trailers and is central to the films other major plot. BB-8 Dameron’s droid has part of a map to the location of Luke Skywalker (more on that later) and The First Order is desperate to capture the droid for the map before the droid can deliver it to The Resistance.
The new droid quickly becomes the faithful partner of scavenger Rey after Dameron is captured and follows her on her journey. Not only is BB-8 brought rather impressively and amusingly to life ,despite communicating via bleeps and sounds much like R2-D2, but there’s obviously been some thought put into how the droid would actually function in various environments and situations which makes the droid seem far more real and like an actual character. That this new droid can seamlessly fit in with iconic droids R2 D2 and C3PO is a testament to the design and approach to the new droid.
Where The Force Awakens really excels though is in its action scenes, special FX, sound design and score. Unlike the vast majority of blockbuster films with their woefully unconvincing and bewildering digital mayhem everything here seems real. Everything seems to have mass and weight and environments feel and look real. Exactly how special FX should work in a film. This doesn’t just apply to how the film looks though. One of the most fundamentally important elements of Star Wars is sound. No other franchise is associated with sound quite like Star Wars. Nothing invokes a sense of nostalgic glee quite like the sound of a Tie Fighter tearing through the sky or the sound of a lightsabre being used in combat. Equally important though is composer John Williams who returns with another impressive score.
So where does it go wrong?
The Force Awakens is rife with narrative developments that are reliant on handwaving, pure coincidence or have no apparent explanation at all or the “it’s about space wizards with laser swords just go with it” explanation. The Force Awakens also features high profile characters that are woefully underused. There are clearly going to be some story elements that are left unexplained as this is the first film in a trilogy, like who Rey’s parents are amongst other things, but hand waving, pure coincidence or events with no apparent explanation for the sake of plot advancement are just bad writing.
Luke Skywalker’s Lightsabre just happening to be in a box in the basement of Maz’s watering hole, a weird mix of Mos Eisley’s cantina and a castle, for some reason. Maz merely mentions the reason for it being there as being a story for another time . Luke’s lightsabre prompts a scattered and confusing flashback or forward for Rey which is a vague explanation for most of the unexplained events she is involved in.
Finn is a Stormtrooper that deserts from The First Order but there’s very little time devoted to showing why a Stormtrooper would just decide to desert from The First Order. Apparently this is because Stormtroopers are not clones but rather children kidnapped and put into service by The First Order.
Finn, despite apparently only working in sanitation, nearly defeats Kylo Ren the film’s antagonist in a lightsabre duel.
Luke Skywalker disappeared after a young Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren ,now a high ranking figure in The First Order, slaughtered his fellow students after being seduced by The Dark Side. Despite disappearing because of the slaughter and leaving his friends behind there is a map to Luke’s exact location which The First Order and The Resistance are both wanting.
A major plot thread is the map to Luke Skywalker’s location, apparently the first Jedi Temple. R2 who has been in hibernation of sorts for an extended period after Luke’s disappearance “wakes up” at exactly the right moment to show Rey and the others the map to where Luke is. Apparently BB-8 says something to R2.
Captain Phasma turns off the shields for the Star Killer ultimately allowing The Resistance to destroy it after being threatened by Finn. Phasma already knows that Finn is not a killer and that is apparently why he deserted from The First Order.
Dameron after surviving the crash with Finn forgets all about the important mission he previously spent his time telling Finn about, showing up later with The Resistance .
As for wasted characters Maz Kanata ,voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, is the thousand year old alien owner of The Force Awakens version of the Mos Eisley cantina. Maz is this films version of Yoda, basically Yoda as an orange old lady with glasses only without any of the charm or relevance. This is one of the most grating callbacks to the original trilogy because you’re not going to upstage Yoda with a character who has pretty much the same physical appearance and pretty much no narrative relevance.
Maz only exists as a means for Rey to get Luke’s old lightsabre which is sequestered in her basement for some reason. There’s no indication at all as to whether Maz even survives the assault on her castle which is destroyed by The First Order. The important thing is you have no reason to care because the character is rendered irrelevant narratively and no longer serves any purpose.
There are numerous aliens featured in Maz’s castle anyone of these could’ve potentially been Maz but they decided to go with a design that is almost exactly the same as Yoda’s.
Captain Phasma, Gwendoline Christie, is utterly wasted in a role that amounts to little more than a cameo. The intimidating leader of the Stormtroopers has only a few brief scenes. An early scene features Finn fighting a random Stormtrooper who calls him a traitor, this could’ve been Phasma and would’ve given the character some actual purpose and also given the pair some history to build from in the on-going narrative.
Some of the main narrative problems with The Force Awakens lie with Rey though. Daisy Riddle’s Rey is in essence a great character and it’s fitting that the first new Star Wars film features a female protagonist because they are in distinct short supply. The problems aren’t with Riddle’s portrayal either, she’s a capable actress. Rey is introduced as a scavenger scraping a living by selling parts salvaged from crashed ships. Rey is no damsel in distress either, quickly dealing with hoodlums attempting to steal her salvage at one point.
Max Landis recently uploaded a video explaining his problems with the character and Finn after coming underfire for apparently being sexist and a racist for commenting on the characters via social media. His problems with the characters had nothing at all to do with the characters gender or race but the writing, this says a lot about fandoms inability and unwillingness to accept any criticism of what they are a fan of.
Rey gets the most handwaving of all, she can somehow pilot the Millenium Falcon despite never being on the ship before and also knows how to run the ship better than Han Solo does. Her life of being a scavenger and selling salvaged ship parts apparently explains this.
The real problem though is as the story unfolds there are never any stakes at all for Rey. Throughout the story she deals with every situation she finds herself in with ease, in fact the only time she makes a mistake it works in her favour. She is only really in any kind of peril once when she is subdued by Kylo Ren and kidnapped. Then Rey uses The Force to make a Stormtrooper release her when captured and then later,despite having never used a lightsabre before and not being trained by anyone in the ways of The Force, Rey manages to not only call Luke’s lightsabre to her hand but also bests Kylo Ren before an earthquake due to the planets imminent destruction seperates the two in the films third act.
Kylo Ren is supposed to be amongst the best that The First Order has to offer, the leader of the Knights Of Ren, trained by Luke Skywalker in the ways of The Force and later the pupil of the mysterious Lord Snoke the supreme commander of The First Order. Yet he is easily bested by Rey who never for a moment seems to be in any actual danger and nearly bested by Finn too. This says a lot about how woefully inept The First Order really are if Kylo Ren is the best they have. The underlying theme of Star Wars is good ultimately triumphs over evil but there’s no actual pay off if there’s no actual struggle between the two. There’s no narrative weight if Rey can easily deal with any obstacle in her path as easily as she does in The Force Awakens.
Just because Kylo Ren was winged by Chewbacca’s bowcaster after killing Han Solo and Rey possibly had some sort of training from Luke or someone else that was blocked or removed from her memory that she is now remembering doesn’t excuse such sloppy writing.
Despite the massive success of The Force Awakens at the Box Office and having a female protagonist Disney have still unsurprisingly fumbled massively on the merchandising front by apparently not even featuring Rey, the main character of the film, in a lot of their merchandise. The hashtag #WheresRey soon becoming popular on Twitter.
Kylo Ren is himself though a rather underwhelming antagonist. He wears a mask for no real reason other than trying to be intimidating but is prone to temper tantrums which is played for laughs more than being intimidating. One of the film’s most amusing scenes is when two patrolling stormtroopers stop their patrol and do a 180 when they realise Kylo Ren is having a tantrum and hacking things to bits with his lightsabre.
The frustrating thing is The Force Awakens is shot really well. The lightsabre duel in the snow covered forest is atmospheric, Kylo Ren’s confrontation with Han Solo is shot really well, The Resistance fighters battling with Tie Fighters is shot really well. Visually The Force Awakens is for the most part excellent it’s just a shame about the writing.
The main problem with The Force Awakens is good storytelling will make everything that happens seem feasible and be engrossing if the world and its characters are well crafted and failing that it should be executed that well that an audience are sucked into the narrative so overlook any such shortcomings. Ideally it should be both. Just expecting an audience to overlook things under the assumption they will be explained in the next film is the kind of writing that works on TV, because TV is episodic, but also you don’t have to wait 18 months or longer for the next episode and hope it all makes sense.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t a terrible film but it’s by no means an amazing one either.