At Film ’89 we like to celebrate film but occasionally a movie comes along that isn’t necessarily deserving of all the praise or financial success bestowed upon it. In the second in a regular feature for Film ’89, we take a look at a film that was either generally praised or maybe divided audiences, or just one that’s ripe for reappraisal and put it on trial, albeit a fair and just trial, to determine whether it actually is a great film, an underwhelming one or just guilty of being run-of-the-mill. In time for the much anticipated eighth Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, we cast judgement on a film which sits at No.3 on the list of highest grossing films of all-time and one lauded by many as a modern masterpiece, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please be seated, court is in session.
Bringing Balance To The Force.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
It’s now been two years since Star Wars: The Force Awakens blazed a trail across cinema screens the world over, destroying box office records to become the third highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). As well as being a colossal commercial success it was also well received by critics too. Star Wars fans were spoilt the year later with yet another Star Wars film, the standalone/spin-off/prequel, whatever you want to call it, Rogue One. And now here we are, two weeks away from a third Star Wars film in as many years, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson and continuing the story from the seventh film in the main saga, The Force Awakens. So it’s with that in mind that I thought it timely to take a look back at The Force Awakens now that the dust and sand has settled.
By the time the seventh Star Wars film rolled out in December 2015 fans were wild with a feverish anticipation. The sagas creator George Lucas’ own prequel trilogy that ran from 1999 to 2005 had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many lifelong Star Wars fans and the generally poor quality of those films, certainly in comparison to the original trilogy (1977 – 1983), had damaged the franchise somewhat. Thankfully The Force Awakens went some way to washing that bad taste away. For the majority of fans The Force Awakens was the Star Wars film that they’d been longing for ever since Return of the Jedi brought the original Star Wars trilogy to a close.
Many of the The Force Awakens’ creative aspects such as the sparing use of CG and the return to practical sets, locations and effects, where possible, gave the film a realism that the CG-heavy prequels sorely lacked. I cannot stress how important a step this was for director J.J. Abrams and I hope that the rest of Hollywood sits up and takes note of this return to more traditional movie making methods. As I’ve stated before, I’m all for CG effects and CG characters as long as they are used effectively and only when necessary and The Force Awakens is as good an example of this as I’ve seen since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy which managed to strike a perfect balance between the two.
If I’m perfectly honest, my first experience seeing The Force Awakens wasn’t great and for some time afterwards I seemed to be dwelling on the things I didn’t like about it. With hindsight I fear my expectations were set too high and I went in wanting a very particular Star Wars film where the original cast were the main focus. That film wasn’t to be and would have best been made back in the mid ’90’s instead of those dreadful prequels. I had to see it again (and in IMAX 3D) where my expectations weren’t so much of a factor. I certainly enjoyed The Force Awakens a lot more the second time around but since then I’m afraid to say that, and this is coming from a 41 year old lifelong fan of Star Wars, I’ve not developed any real kind of love or bond with the film. Before you label this a hate piece, which it certainly is not, let me assure you, I’ve given this film more thought and discussed it with like-minded Star Wars fans and other film critics more than any other film of the last few years.
The general consensus amongst my peers is that it’s not a perfect film or even a perfect Star Wars film but what it is at least is a good Star Wars film and there was a time when I never thought we’d get another one so for that I’m grateful. I’ll start with some of the things that it got very much right. Firstly from the outset The Force Awakens looks and feels like a Star Wars film should. Gritty and lived-in like the original trilogy of films with none of the cartoonish artificiality of the prequels. The film flies along at a cracking pace and the action scenes are superbly executed. Things slow down just enough in the earlier scenes with Rey to establish her isolation but afterwards the film barely stops for breath. The tone of the film is in general free of the over emphasis on the light and fluffy, almost comical nonsense of the prequels. Here it’s all a bit darker and somber in tone, yet there are similarly well gauged moments of humour throughout. Great little moments that will please fans such as BB8 and Finn’s thumbs up exchange, that truly crowd-pleasing reveal of the Millennium Falcon and Kylo Ren stopping the laser blast in mid-air. Moments like this are peppered throughout the film but it never stoops to the forced fan-servicing of the prequels.
The performances on the whole from the newcomers are fine, Daisy Ridley is good as the main protagonist Rey, considering it’s her first acting role and whilst John Boyega’s Finn overplays his part sometimes, such as his cringeworthy smack-talk to Captain Phasma, he’s far more likeable and his performance far more believable than the likes of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen from the prequels. Of the returning cast from the originals, the late and truly missed Carrie Fisher is better than I’d imagine many fans had feared she’d be in a smaller role than expected. But it’s Harrison Ford as Han Solo who provided the biggest and most satisfying link to the original trilogy. Ford looked like he was giving his all and fully embracing the character and enjoying himself. His chemistry with Chewbacca was spot-on and at times it felt as if they’d never been away.
Oscar Isaac was fine and very likeable, if a little one dimensional as Poe Dameron and I suspect he was being introduced as a replacement for Han Solo in the forthcoming films. The biggest surprise came from Adam Driver who, as main villain Kylo Ren, gave a far more multi-layered performance than those initial trailers hinted at and was not just a Darth Vader rehash. As much as I’d have liked a little more insight into his past and his turn to the Dark Side, I’m sure we’ll get all that in The Last Jedi.
On a technical level the film is a marvel. There are a few minor issues that I’ll come to later but on the whole the film is a feast for the eyes and ears. There are some shots that are just eye-wateringly gorgeous and the real-life film locations, even when augmented with subtle and well used CG effects, look great throughout. Even the more fabricated environments such as Starkiller Base look great. John Williams delivers a fine enough score given his recent health issues with new characters such as Rey getting some nice little motifs and recurring themes are often used to great effect, no better example being when Rey first fires up Luke’s lightsaber and we hear Luke’s theme. Also I must stress as J.J. Abrams has stated, that The Force Awakens needed to be seen in IMAX. I saw it theatrically in both standard 2D and IMAX 3D and the latter provided a truly jaw dropping viewing experience that was well worth the extra cost. Unfortunately and rather lazily on Lucasfilm’s part, the 3D Blu-Ray did not utilise the taller aspect ratio and maintained the 2.35:1 image throughout.
Now here’s where I tread into potentially dangerous territory. As was proven with the vitriolic backlash against the likes of screenwriter Max Landis who was attacked from all sides for not liking certain elements of The Force Awakens and going public with his views, it seems that fans don’t take kindly to criticism of their beloved franchise. Firstly, everyone is entitled to their opinion and when they go out of their way to justify said opinion with sound reasoning, those who attack them for having opposing views to theirs can come across as idiotic fanboys and girls. I’m a Star Wars fan, I’ve grown up with it having just turned 41 but that doesn’t mean I have to blindly heap praise upon a film that is less than perfect and make no bones about it The Force Awakens is not a perfect film, far from it in fact. We’ve now had two years to analyse the film and it certainly has its fair share of flaws and if you can enjoy or even love the film in spite of these flaws then great, more power to you, but allow others to have their opinions too. Its called tolerance. The world would be a better place with more of it.
So what things do I think The Force Awakens didn’t do so well? Well there are some pretty glaring and at times lazy elements to the script that many have highlighted such as the reuse of the Death Star as the First Order’s weapon of mass destruction. Now, whilst I’ll give the film credit for not using the exact same weapon as Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, it is still in essence the same plot device, a huge planetary weapon that requires a squad of small rebel fighter ships to destroy it aided by some help on the ground. Sound familiar? If you’re looking at The Force Awakens as a sort of reboot as well as a sequel then this reuse of the Death Star is more forgivable otherwise it does smack of a lack of fresh ideas. There are innumerable mega-weapons that have been conceived in the now defunct Expanded Universe that The First Order could have used instead. Why not just go with a supermassive Star Destroyer with planet smashing capabilities? This is one of several lazy script elements that give the impression that the film was designed by a committee with a list of requirements that they were just going through and ticking off.
Another script issue, namely Rey being great at everything, is perhaps the thing that Landis was attacked most viciously for. For me he had a very valid point and I don’t understand why Rey had to be so good at everything so soon in this trilogy. Fighting, piloting and repairing the Falcon better than Han Solo; instinctively knowing how to find a solution to any problem using blast doors; resisting and then fighting back against Kylo Ren’s mind powers; using Force persuasion as well as a Jedi Master; using the Force to move things; using a lightsaber and ultimately defeating Kylo Ren with comparative ease, there’s simply nothing she can’t do and highlighting this as a problem with the film isn’t anything to do with her being female. As Landis pointed out in his very public rebuttal, starting off under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, Luke Skywalker, who you may recall was male, was rubbish at almost everything. Rey being as good as she is at everything robs the film of a great deal of character development and dramatic tension and smacks once again of lazy writing.
Finn’s turn against The First Order didn’t feel natural but forced. Are we to believe that having been enlisted from a very young age, effectively torn away from his family, he then undergoes years of training and harsh conditioning only to play turncoat on his first mission? If he’d been a slightly more seasoned Stormtrooper who’d simply had enough of the ways of The First Order and turned then his character would have had more of a redemptive edge and felt more natural. As it is it seems that they’ve very much played it safe with Finn and his backstory in order to keep him as wholesome a hero as possible for the younger members of the audience. Maybe it’s a sign of the wholly risk averse mentality that permeates Hollywood but can’t we have rogues like Han Solo, characters who aren’t perfectly wholesome? Making Finn both a former Stormtrooper and such a good character with no skeletons in his closet is too much of an ask for me and is just more evidence of this ‘made by a committee’ approach to this new Star Wars trilogy.
Now, whilst the performances on the whole are good, there is one that sticks out like a sore Wookie’s toe and that’s General Hux played by Domhnall Gleeson. Now as Gleeson proved in Ex Machina, he can act and act well. How he ended up giving such an uncomfortably over the top, scenery chewing performance as the one he does here is beyond me. If you can watch him giving his big speech to the assembled First Order troops on the surface of the Starkiller Base and not cringe at the sneering, pantomime villain-esque delivery then I have nothing else to say to you. It’s bad and was far more obviously so on repeat viewings. What should have been a great scene was ruined for me as were most of his scenes in the film.
Aside from the wholly unnecessary Rathtar scene there are only two other CG characters of significance, Supreme Leader Snoke (awful name) and Maz Kanata. Whilst Maz certainly is a likeable character both she and Snoke suffer from some less than convincing CGI and given that the film has so few CG characters I can’t understand how more time wasn’t spent in perfecting them. When you look at The Hobbit films, which had a glut of CG characters, some would argue too many, they were still able to create two of the finest CG creations in Gollum and Smaug both of whom have significant screen time and never once look anything less than flawless in their execution. How could Lucasfilm not replicate this with similar resources?
And now onto the big shock moment, the death of Han Solo. Harrison Ford allegedly wanted his character killed off in Return of the Jedi and it would come as no surprise to me if this was written in to his contract and in terms of the added impact and dramatic weight it gives the film it was the right way to go and kudos to Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan for going along with it. It gives the film its own “I am your father” moment that won’t quickly be forgotten. That said the film really lets itself down with its handling of the aftermath of Han’s death. Such a pivotal event in this decades spanning saga is so quickly brushed aside and the most ridiculous thing about it is when our surviving heroes return, that Leia ignores Han’s longtime partner, co-pilot and best friend Chewbacca and instead chooses to comfort Rey, a character that barely knew Han whereas the bond between Han & Chewie was one of family yet Leia completely ignores him. To this day it baffles me and, if I’m honest angers me that such blatant disregard is given to two of the most important characters from the original trilogy. There’s enough focus on Rey without her taking centre stage in this clumsy moment that seems to have been tailored so as to bring Leia and Rey closer together at the expense of Chewbacca. Walking carpet or not, he’s as beloved and important a character as any in this film yet he gets short shrift in a moment that should have been all about him and his grief. Again, more evidence that this was made by a committee with little regard for the established canon.
Leaving my final bugbear until last, the one sin I can’t forgive is keeping Luke Skywalker out of the picture until THAT ending. In the two years since we first saw The Force Awakens there have been numerous memes, gifs and YouTube videos mocking the painfully awkward and drawn out final silent exchange between Rey and Luke and for good reason, it’s a bit ridiculous really. Unless you’re going to establish beforehand the exact nature of their relationship we can only assume from what we’re given in the film that they’ve never met as Rey never alludes to knowing Luke. Yet the pained longing that both express seems completely at odds with what little we know of Rey and any connection she may have with the long lost Jedi Master. Having had such little of Rey’s backstory, well let’s be honest, we were given none of her backstory, certainly not enough to inject this final meeting with the requisite emotional resonance to match the awkward on-screen melodrama. The fact that Luke says nothing at all makes his pained look of constipation all the more ridiculous and to this particular Star Wars fan, for whom Luke is the centre-point of the whole saga, pretty much unforgivable.
I may be accused of ‘nitpicking’, a term I believe to have no real value, and I will accept that some of the flaws I’ve highlighted can be overlooked but when small flaws occur in abundance within a film their cumulative effect can be considerable and this being a Star Wars film then it is under great pressure from the huge weight of fan expectation, fans like me who want a near flawless Star Wars film. And as time has gone on, these no longer seem like small flaws but considerable ones. In the case of Leia’s ignorance of Chewie, one borne of poor writing, and in the case of General Hux, and THAT ending, bad acting and careless direction.
So on the whole some great elements and some really not so great elements that could have been easily resolved with a few simple tweaks of the script and some tighter direction. This for me makes the film all the more frustrating in that it was really good in parts but could so easily have been a truly great film and as good as the films of the original trilogy. The film’s blindly staunch defenders may remind me how bad the prequels are and that such a reminder should sway my view slightly more into balance. My counter to that is that one must realise that the prequels were made by an individual who had been away from hands-on filmmaking for far too long with no one willing or able to reign him in or guide his hand. But in Lucas’ defence – and I’m certainly not one to champion the prequels – at least the prequels showed us things we’d never seen before and dared to be bold in their scope. What does The Force Awakens give us that we haven’t already seen before, done better? Yes, it gave us the best Star Wars film since 1983 (until Rogue One that is) but for me it lacked anything as truly memorable as the countless classic scenes from the original trilogy. Sorry to harp back to those films but ultimately it’s an unavoidable comparison. The Force Awakens does a lot well but stumbles too frequently and never truly excels, ultimately playing it far too safe, using its gorgeous visual aesthetic to mask the failings of its script.
There’s a large majority who love and have fully embraced The Force Awakens and I don’t mean to be overly negative about it or attempt to invalidate anyone’s love of the film. The purpose of this article isn’t to be a hate piece but to bring a bit of balance by highlighting and detailing its flaws which I feel automatically get a pass from fans because it’s a good Star Wars film. Yes, The Force Awakens IS a good Star Wars film and the bad taste of the prequels has certainly been washed away somewhat but behind the admittedly jaw-dropping surface gloss it’s not the masterpiece many fans decree it to be and it’s nowhere near as well written and conceived as the films of the original trilogy. I truly hope now that The Force Awakens has been such a resounding financial success for the Disney-owned Lucasfilm that the next film, The Last Jedi, will be more bold and also fill in some of the gaping expositional holes, certainly those pertaining to Rey. From what we’ve seen so far I’m confident that Episode 8 will retroactively solve many of my problems with The Force Awakens and if that comes to pass then I’ll happily wash down a large piece of humble pie with a glass of blue milk.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 6/10
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the U.K. December 14th and the U.S. December 15th.