140 Character Movie Review – #140RVW
No surprise that House of Mouse would give fans EXACTLY what they clamored for. Careful what you wish for. Equal parts great & derivative…
Spoiler-free Movie Review of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens:
I saw The Force Awakens Thursday night it’s now Tuesday morning. It’s taken me this long to put together my review frankly because I’ve never felt so completely conflicted about a Star Wars film; seldom about any film at all.
This is going to be a long review, so let me start off with a short breakaway piece that will let you know if you want to read the whole thing:
- The Force Awakens is a fun, good looking and sounding movie that tries to give the people what they want and mostly succeeds, launching a new era of Star Wars films. I enjoyed myself.
- The Force Awakens is also a derivative, unnecessary and possibly cynical launch of a new series of
cash cowsfilms that fails to give the people what they need, creating more questions than it answered. I felt frustrated by it.
Chapter 1: The Questionable Motivation
I really don’t want to seem down on Episode VII, but I’ve been struck with the same feeling since the moment they announced it – I wish they weren’t doing this.
Not that I didn’t want more Star Wars movies, I just didn’t see why they had to go back to the cast of the original films and try to pick up where they left off. You can’t recapture lightning in a bottle. That starship had sailed 30 years ago. The continuing stories of Leia, Luke, Han, Chewie and the droids were covered extensively in the pages of countless books. Some were brilliant, some were dreadful, most were great for what they were.
I would have been much happier if they had left well enough alone with those characters. If they wanted to make new films, go far into the future or into the past. Or if you absolutely must set this in the timeline where they did, use the Expanded Universe material as a jumping off point.
I’ve gone on at length about my disapproval of the decision to discard decades of Expanded Universe stories, relegating them to “Legends” so that the new filmmaking team would have room to work in. It was a cynical, short-sighted and lazy move that was disrespectful to the fans and creators of hundreds of authorized stories. I’m not going to bore you with it here (I’ll bore you with it here and here). I will merely say this: when you cavalierly chose to ignore everything that came before in favor of the stuff you are creating now, you really set a bar for yourself. Everything you create has to be better than what you discarded. It has to. It may not be a fair standard to be held to, but you set it. Every time you invent a planet instead of using one of the meticulously created ones created and then crafted by a number of different writers, it needs to be special. Because otherwise, why didn’t you just use what was already there? Similarly and much more importantly, if you decide what the characters went on to do after Return of the Jedi, it had better be damn good.
Chapter 2: The Maker Strikes Back
I’ve often blathered on throughout this site about the perils of creating something solely to satisfy what you think the audience wants. Seeing what has worked before and then trying it again, being reactionary and trying to distance yourself from past (perceived) failures; that’s how companies work, it shouldn’t be how art works.
The whole feel of the picture, the entire conceit, is and has always been – “capture the feel of the originals”. With a very closely attached – “don’t make this like the prequels”. I have a problem with both statements. In the first, the Original Trilogy didn’t have one “feel” – each of the installments was decidedly unique. The perception is that they all had a “fun” sensibility, and it’s true up to a point, but the reason they worked so well is that there was a lot going on under the hood – a full range of styles and themes. So copying the “feel” of something is tricky. (My issue with the second aim is simply that you shouldn’t set out with a negative imperative – defining yourself by what you’re not.)
George Lucas had a fairly damning quote about the movie, which was misinterpreted as praise. “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” Ouch. That’s some backhanded compliment. Looks like the Notorious GL knows how to throw some shade…
Lucas was clearly badly burned by public backlash to his prequel films to the extent that he wanted nothing to do with making more films to be criticized for. In the years since Revenge of the Sith, he groomed Dave Filoni and his creative team to continue the saga through projects like The Clone Wars in the manner Lucas envisioned. He often stated that he was “teaching them how to make Star Wars”. It’s just my personal opinion, but I imagine that Lucas would have considered Filoni a worthy successor had the desire to make new feature films returned.
When Lucas retired and wanted to ensure the future of his legacy, he chose an executive in Kathleen Kennedy who was more than capable of overseeing the type of film he and contemporary Steven Spielberg mastered. But he also then sold Lucasfilm to Disney, and in so doing gave up the reins to his saga once and for all.
At the time of the sale, Lucas turned over his story treatments for Episodes VII-IX, believing that there was no one more qualified to come up with the future of the franchise. He initially acted as creative consultant on the picture and reportedly hand-picked Abrams and screenwriter Michael Arndt. But Lucas’ plans weren’t what Disney had in mind, so they dismissed Arndt (who rightly still receives a credit on the film) and went in a new direction. I believe Lucas was genuinely shocked that his ideas would be cast aside. I think he truly believed that he would still be a part of his franchise even after passing it on to the next generation, and the rejection of his input has him feeling a bit jilted and possibly bitter. Which is all completely understandable.
I mention all of this by way of saying that I understand the context for his comment, yet maintain that it is a valid criticism. Lucas knew that the filmmakers were lobbing a softball to fans and that it would be a hit. But he studiously avoided being pinned down on saying if it was a good movie. He knew it wasn’t.
Chapter 3: Always Two There Are…
The Force Awakens is really two movies, only one of which I actually liked.
It feels odd to actually have such disappointment over a franchise that has been so reliably my favorite for so long and I think the delay in finishing and publishing this review is because oddly enough I felt a little guilty about writing anything so negative about it.
The fact remains that The Force Awakens is the least effective and most disappointing Star Wars film of all time. That’s quite a comment I know, and yes, I’m including the prequels in there. I can honestly say that I felt more disappointed and less satisfied walking out of Episode VII than with any of the prequel films.
By the standards of trying to create a single film, The Force Awakens is a spectacular failure. That sounds really bad; the truth is it’s nowhere near that bad. I really enjoyed the movie mostly.
The core problem is trying to serve two masters; the film is attempting to create engaging new characters, situations and settings and launch a new brand (a relaunch, really), while simultaneously trying to cater to older fans of the original trilogy. That’s hard to do, and it doesn’t.
The first part of that mission succeeds; the new characters of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren are fantastic – really interesting. I absolutely adored the first 40 minutes or so of the film and was completely spellbound. After that, the power coupling came off the alluvial dampers, with the focus on the whole nostalgia factor.
Chapter 4: Return of the Grump
I get it – no, I do. I’m generally very favorable to that sort of thing, but just as with that other Star franchise, the split mission created a little bit of a problem. The Force Awakens reminded me of nothing so much as Star Trek: Generations, that awkward attempt to turn the nineties television program Star Trek: The Next Generation into a feature film while shoehorning James Tiberius Kirk in there somehow and for pretty much the same reason. They wanted people to stick with the character they love you so much in Kirk and knew that there was a large group of filmgoers who would not go to go see any Star Trek film that did not have Bill Shatner. See, that right there is the problem – not that they needed to have Kirk in there, that they needed to have Shatner in there.
This is true with The Force Awakens as well and echoes a problem I’ve talked about ad nauseum on this site: adjusting your film around an actor instead of changing the actor to suit the film. Because they were able to talk perpetual grump Harrison Ford into being in the film, he is completely over-used; not because he’s Han Solo but because he’s Harrison Ford. The actor/character’s screen time is completely out of proportion to his story importance and it leads to this really bizarre conflicted film in which you have the better instincts of story creation saddled with previous installments and previous characters.
Almost the moment that Ford appears on screen the entire pace of the movie gets thrown way out of whack. The first part of the film has wonderful pacing to it as you learned about these characters Finn, Rey, Poe and to a lesser degree Kylo Ren. It is exactly as you would want it to be it; the film has a wonderful feel to it – there’s a spark of excitement and energy but there’s also some mystery and a general Star Wars feel. But then pace of the film gets really fast in a real big hurry and it completely changes the mood of the piece. Everything towards the back half just starts to speed up incredibly.
Now that might be considered an editing problem, but it’s not – it’s a story problem and I’ll tell you why. The principal fault with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is that it creates more questions than it answers.
Chapter 5: The Phantom, well, everything…
I actually experienced the unusual feeling of walking out of a movie with more questions than I walked in with. This should never happen. Forget that it’s a Star Wars film, this shouldn’t occur in any picture. Movies have to stand on their own feet, despite whatever connective tissue there is with other installments. No Star Wars movie has ever failed so completely to stand alone on its own merits than Episode VII, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it’s the first film in a trilogy. The middle film in a trilogy is by definition reliant on the movie they came before it and the movie following it up. Think Episode II, Episode V or the upcoming Episode VIII. So it’s even less sensible for this to happen with the first film of the new series. Not only do I not know more about where they’re going with this franchise after seeing the film, I think I know less. This is completely unacceptable.
For those of you who are rejecting this concept let’s put it into a little bit of perspective; think about The Phantom Menace. Yes, I’m going to make you think about The Phantom Menace – for some of you this will be unfairly unpleasant memory (not myself – see my review). Before The Phantom Menace came out everyone had a lot of speculation based on the early glimpses we saw. After all, we were going far into the past into areas of Star Wars myth we had not yet seen.
- What was the story with multiple Jedi? We’ve never seen multiple Jedi before.
- Who is this mysterious Darth? We always thought that there was one Darth – Vader. Obi-Wan even called him Darth like it was his first name. Now there’s this new bizarre, horned character Darth Maul – pretty badass-looking but what’s up with the “Darth”? Is this in fact a title?
So we knew nothing about this character; they rightly kept it all very well hidden so we wouldn’t know what was going on; but at the end of Episode I you knew everything about it. Now there was a lot of entirely justified grumbling that for somebody who was hyped up so much he was barely in the damn thing, but you did have your questions answered.
Now contrast that with anything about The Force Awakens:
- Who is this mysterious Kylo Ren? He’s got this weird lightsaber, is he a Sith? His name doesn’t say “Darth” in front of it. Is that meaningful?
- Who is this Captain Phasma played by Gwendoline Christie? She looks so cool with this chrome armor thing going on – what’s that about? What is she captain of – what’s her role in this hierarchy? Ditto with Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux.
- What about say any of the other characters that they’re creating?
- Why does the trailer talk about the role of the Jedi passing into myth?
- How did the Empire get back on top? Doesn’t that mean there needs to be an Emperor?
- Why are they now called the First Order? I’m sure that’s some kind of Third Reich parallel, but how could they possibly be first of anything if they look exactly like the Empire?
- The guys in X-wings are part of the Resistance; resisting what? Is the Republic back in power or not?
These are all questions you will not have answered. That’s not really a spoiler. In point of fact, I actually found it easier to do a spoiler-free review of the movie than I ever would have expected – because you don’t learn anything. You will walk out of the movie knowing less about the new direction of Star Wars than if you had not gone in at all.
Chapter 6: A New Hope Awakens
The picture really is deja vu all over again. It’s clear that they’re trying to invoke the spirit of the previous films, A New Hope especially, and as far as it goes that’s a good goal. The problem is that it doesn’t play anything like A New Hope in terms of clarity, simple storytelling, or really just about anything else. The MacGuffin in this film is truly ridiculous.
In all Star Wars films a lot of pressure is put on the opening crawl, particularly when there’s been a sizable period of time in between pictures. Really one of the reasons The Phantom Menace got off to such a bad start was by talking about trade routes in those floating yellow letters. You immediately were nervous and put on the defensive.
As I say, this is a spoiler-free review so I won’t be getting into detail, but I will say that the opening crawl for The Force Awakens isn’t very satisfactory. In fact it’s one of the real problem right at the gate – you’re expecting a lot in terms of backstory considering that 32 years has passed since the last film both in actual time and screen time. You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. But they don’t; there is really almost nothing added to help explain what’s been going on for the past three decades.
I’d been putting a lot of hope on this one, given that there were going to be questions that needed answering, but I didn’t let a vague opening crawl ruin anything for me and still remained incredibly optimistic.
I had the time of my life for the first part of the film. I really cannot overstate how good of a job was done with the casting and writing of these new characters. Daisy Ridley as Rey is fantastic – an instant star. Rey is a long overdue female protagonist who is almost certain to be as iconic and important as Princess Leia herself. John Boyega, who I previously had seen only in the immensely enjoyable Attack the Block, is equally perfect in his role as Finn. This is an incredibly charismatic actor who’s got a very good role to match and is totally suitable for him. Rounding out the new big three, Oscar Isaac is fun as Poe Dameron. Isaac has already proven his bona fides so I suppose that makes him the Harrison Ford of this bunch, although I don’t really want to settle anyone with that legacy. Both the character and the actor acquit themselves marvelously; this is someone I want to spend more time with, which is why it’s such a damn shame that I’m not going to – because instead I’m going to be saddled with the grumpy Ford for most of the rest of the picture.
This is what I mean – you created great new characters but then I don’t get to spend enough time with them because you’ve loaded the story down with characters who have already gotten their time. It’s like tossing Leonard Nimoy into the similarly J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek reboots. I really enjoyed those films, but Nimoy still felt strangely out of place.
BB-8, by the way, is exactly as adorable as he seemed in all of the trailers. I love the little guy – he’s fantastic, a new fan favorite.
Chapter 7: Revenge of the Nostalgia
If I’m grousing that the inclusion of the older characters shortchanges the new ones don’t misunderstand – it shortchanges the old ones, too. Other than Ford, who’s in there because he’s Ford, all of the original characters get short shrift. Despite their presence in the trailers in the ads and all of that stuff you barely see them. It’s disrespectful to bring people like Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker and other back but then underuse them.
I really truly mean it when I say that I wish they had just not bother to try to do this in the first place. I wish they had tried to go for a new story entirely, or failing that, if they wanted to have the original characters in there, pick up the story five years after Return of the Jedi or ten years after Return of the Jedi and recast the roles. I know that sounds like sacrilege but it really isn’t. The stubborn insistence on using the actors that everyone knows and loves, myself included, dictated the kind of story you were going to tell. If you weren’t able to do an Episode VII back in the day when these actors could still play it then you should have done something entirely different.
I knew that there was going to be a lot of pressure on the opening film and that by the second one you’d be enjoying it much more. That still remains the case; I went into the movie knowing I was likely to enjoy Episode VIII far more than I likely would VII. I did not expect that I would be going to Episode VIII still wondering where are they going with this new version of the Wars, and that’s unacceptable. I really just can’t get past the fact that they’ve taken no trouble to explain any of the backstory here; it desperately needs explanation. Three decades have passed and we’re still watching stormtroopers and rebels. I don’t get it. If The Force Awakens seems slight, derivative and played strictly for nostalgia that’s because it is.
Chapter 8: Attack of the Mouse
Now I can tell the momentum propelled me to a more negative review than I wanted. In fact, I wasn’t really sure that I could do a review at all when I had such mixed feelings about the film. I didn’t really want to be so negative about it and I still plan on amending this review once I’ve seen the film the second time, which leads me to my final problem; I felt instantly that I had to see the movie again. Now from a corporate marketing standpoint that may be fantastic, learning that your film is the cinematic equivalent of crack cocaine, but for the rest of us that’s not a good thing. Despite the fact that we live in this binge culture and I am a geeky fanboy who likes to watch things over and over and over again, your film shouldn’t actually require that. This is a major design flaw and signals that you have failed to do your job is a filmmaker. If your movie doesn’t make sense the first time and leaves the audience with the feeling that they need to see it again then you have been unclear. Despite the proliferation of fanboys, most people see movies once – they don’t need to see it two and three and four times. If you require them to do so, you’re making a tragic error.
Chapter 9: Staring at the Twin Suns
I wanted to love Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I may still come to love it. More likely I’ll learn to accept its flaws and enjoy the parts that made me feel like a kid again. Because those moments surely are there. Despite my many criticisms of the film, I remain hopeful for the series. It still has more lightsabers than any other film franchise…
The Representation Test Score: BB-9 pts
|Main Cast||Daisy Ridley Rey
John Boyega Finn
Oscar Isaac Poe Dameron
Domhnall Gleeson General Hux
|Release Date||Fri 18 Dec 2015 UTC|
|Genres||Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi|
|Plot||A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi”.|
|Tagline||Every generation has a story.|
|Writers||Lawrence Kasdan (written by) &, J.J. Abrams (written by) …|