2015-12-22

The Force Awakens: the Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Per my previous post, I thought Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was very, very good but definitely not perfect. Below are my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the truly amazing aspects of this film.

WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Good:
  • The original cast actors bring their A game. I was worried that Harrison Ford would mail it in. On the contrary, he, Leia, etc. are in top form.
  • The writing was good too. Han is straight up funny and we get a lot more depth out of Chewbacca than we've ever had before. Even C3PO isn't annoying.
  • This movie was clearly made by fans for fans as there is such care taken to do right by the characters, things, and themes that we all know and love from the original trilogy. The fan service is well done and not nearly as cheesy or over the top as in the prequel trilogy. My favorite example of this is when Leia feels Han die, she clutches her heart and has to sit down - almost exactly like Yoda in Episode III when he feels the other jedi dying. It's a really subtle tie-in but I think it was intentional and it was very well done.
  • As this is something of a "passing the torch" movie, there are many new characters introduced and, by and large, they are compelling, interesting, well written, well acted, and well developed (within the time constraints of a Hollywood blockbuster). I would have liked more from General Hux and Captain Phasma, but hopefully they'll be better in Episode VIII.
  • The movie is visually stunning. I've seen it twice in 3D and once in IMAX 3D (recommended) but I haven't yet seen it in any of the allegedly optimal formats. Still, the focus on practical effects when possible and cinematography result in some breathtaking scenes and riveting action sequences.
  • Kylo Ren is an interesting, complex villain. His conflict between light and dark, his still-to-be-revealed back story, his Solo tie-in, and his inability to contain his passionate emotions (reflected even in his lightsaber, which needs exhaust ports to vent excess heat) are all really interesting. Frankly this is what I was hoping for out of Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy.
  • This movie answers some 30 year old questions about what has happened after the events of Episode VI . . . but at the same time introduces many more questions. The result is something that both satisfies and leaves you hungering for more - well done.
  • The music, my goodness the music. There isn't much new territory covered here, no major new them, but the existing themes we already know and love are masterfully woven into the film. Just thinking of Rey lighting the lightsaber as the theme swells, reflecting her growing confidence and determination gives me chills. Well done!
The Force Awakens is far from perfect, though, so here's
The Bad:
  • The plot is largely recycled from Episode IV and VI. From starting with a droid hiding some secret on a desert planet to ending with a ground strike team taking down shields so that x-wings can make a trench run to blow up a death star and including the defenseless older mentor character being struck down by the Vader-like character . . . it all feels more than a little familiar. I get that they were trying to pay homage to the original trilogy but I would have liked a little more original plot.
  • Even at 2.5 hours, it felt rushed in several places. There were some major events that didn't linger long enough for them to sink in. For example, when the Starkiller base is used to destroy an entire planetary system (and the New Republic fleet), it just moves on immediately to, "OK, how are we going to respond," depriving the scene of the gravitas it might have otherwise had. Similarly Finn just up and decides he's not buying what the New Order is selling and starts shooting storm troopers - the guys he has grown up with his entire life - without a second thought. I would expect some more conflict in him, which would give his character more depth. Finn also develops strong bonds with both Poe and Rey really quickly, with very little relationship development. I suspect that many of these omissions are the hallmarks of cuts that were made to keep the movie under Hollywood's pre-defined blockbuster time limit so I'm hopeful for an extended edition to be released that will fill in some of the gaps.
  • There are also some disbelief-suspending plot holes. R2D2 randomly comes back on and takes a long time to do so because . . . convenience. Poe's sole mission is to recover BB8 and yet he leaves Jakku without him for some reason to head back to the Resistance, hops in an x-wing, and doesn't go immediately back to Jakku because . . . convenience.
Fortunately there really isn't any ugly in The Force Awakens, so here's
The Amazing:
  • I love, love, love how gender is treated in this movie. There are strong female roles; Leia is now a "general," not a "princess" and the stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a woman. The men are conflicted, emotional, and not infallible. It's a much more even playing field than I'm used to seeing in action movies - and especially Star Wars movies.
  • One female protagonist really stands out to me, though: Rey. She is strong, capable, unsure of herself, vulnerable, driven, and - at the end of the day - totally badass. It's the first time I can recall ever being totally inspired by a female hero. Every time I watch the movie I get starry eyed "OMG I wanna be like that!" feelings in ways that have traditionally been reserved for very "masculine" heroes. I wonder what the implications are when an entire generation of boys grows up having had not just male idols but females as well. Workplace equality? Men more capable of doing things that have typically been considered "feminine" in the workplace (things which research shows are incredibly valuable for leadership and teamwork)? Women able to be leaders in organizations without adopting "masculine" traits and being derogatorily labeled for it? I don't know but I have a hunch that, if popular media continue to level the playing field between male and female heroes, it could be tranformative to our collective psychology.
  • Rey's character wouldn't be nearly so compelling without fantastic acting and Daisy Ridley absolutely crushes it (Writing and direction must get credit too.). She's not the only one, though. In the best scene of the movie (Maybe one of the best scenes of all time?), she and Adam Driver deliver absolutely virtuosic performances. During the interrogation scene, let's be clear that he is straight-up raping her. It may be rape of the mind rather than the body but, if anything, that feels even more heinous to me. "You know I can take whatever I want." He is exerting total domination and power over her as she lies helplessly restrained. And then she resists. You can see the determination written all over her face. You can then see her confidence grow - and his shake - as she fights and ultimately overpowers him.There is almost no dialog, special effects, or even blocking - it is an entire journey of psychological epiphany and empowerment told exclusively through the faces of two actors locked in an epic performance. It's glorious and I can't remember the last time I was able to say that about a scene in a movie blockbuster.
So there you have it, my take on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It wasn't perfect but it was very, very good and some of it was straight up amazing. What did you think? Please preface your comments with SPOILER tags if they contain them.

5 comments:

Nick Farmer said...

Agreed on all counts. To me, the major fail of the movie is the death of Han Solo, which seemed strangely devoid of gravitas, I think because not enough had been done to establish his relationship with his son to that point. Honestly, I think I would have reacted differently if it had been Leia that was killed. Because the back story was absent, the first scene where father and son are together lacked emotional grounding. It was good, but could have been better. If Leia had been the one, I would have been more surprised regardless of backstory. Possibly my knowledge of Harrison Ford's desire to quit the character made the outcome of the scene more obvious as well. The death also didn't seem to resonate with the characters in the movie for long; Chewbacca blows right past Leia when they land at the end and she hugs Rey instead? That only makes sense if Rey is her daughter and Chewy knows it, else Leia's friend and protector for over 30 years (and Han's best friend!) hug each other for a good while in that scene and really make us feel the loss of the greatest Star Wars character. RIP.

Nick Farmer said...

The best parts: The acting! The humor! The fan service! The music! The incredible, near-ground, epic dogfights! The sets and world-building! Despite some minor gripes, this was one entertaining movie!

Bryan Hassin said...

I agree that the Leia-Rey hug (instead of Chewbacca) made no sense . . . unless it's a clue to some back story that we won't get until Ep VIII. I'm reserving judgement on things that seem inconsistent and plot holes until we have the full picture but, in the meantime, some things don't add up.

Pyotr Kropotkin said...

I loved the character of Rey, resourceful, crafty and I feel she brought a lot of enthusiasm to much of the movie. However, I just could not find myself to believe that she could use the force just like that or at least in the way she was using it and when she managed to beat Kylo Ren ( I know he was injured). Like you said the plot was recycled, it was rushed to the point of feeling stale and the characters had the protection of the plot ( yes, Rey I'm talking about you!). It was not the greatest Star Wars movie, in fact it was not a great movie at all at best it was mediocre. I feel this movie is just a build up for a sequel for Disney Co. to cash in from all the fans who buy the tickets. On a brighter note I still had fun with it even though I felt the plot and overall writing of it was weak.

Bryan Hassin said...

I've watched the movie twice more since posting this review and I continue to enjoy it. It returned me to child-like giddiness and re-immersed me in that galaxy far, far away - something the prequels were never able to do.

It can't really be faulted for recycling plot elements; after all, even the original Star Wars was an intentional amalgamation of story archetypes and components that are as old as storytelling itself. I'm finding that many of the plot "holes" and underdeveloped characters are better addressed in the novelization so I suspect that many of them are the result of studio pressure to cut the movie down to 2.5 hours. As I understand it, JJ's first cut of the film was ~3 hours. It would be interesting to see an extended version some day.

This movie is certainly flawed but my interpretation is that it's not just a cash grab setup film by Disney. JJ is a lifelong Star Wars fan and I think he made this with true care and love, desperately wanting to steward the characters and stories we love. He erred a bit on the overly cautious side, but maybe that was necessary to re-engage fans that had been burnt by the prequels. I'm hopeful that subsequent films will be more aggressive in treading new territory and answering some of the questions from this film. In fact, I think we can't really finally judge this film until we have the context of the later films.