Jan 6, 2016

Film Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

I'll get to Maz Kanata in a minute
To say that I was excited about the newest Star Wars film is a huge understatement. Having attended first-night, 12:00 screenings of the prequels (Episodes 1-3), I know how very real the disappointment in Star Wars can be. Still, I'm a huge fan of J.J. Abrams (Alias is still my favorite show of all time, for some reason), and all of the trailers and behind-the-scenes interviews/clips made the movie seem, if nothing else, cool. So I went into the theater with a little trepidation but a lot of joy. And since it's fun to rope other people into my nervous psychosis, I brought family along as well. Below are our ALMOST COMPLETELY SPOILER FREE reviews of the film:

My 12-Year-Old Cousin
Some Previous Tableau Posts: HERE and HERE
Star Wars History: Has seen some clips of the movies on YouTube, but is basically a novice. I didn't realize this until the week before we went to see the movie. I feel like I failed her.

Looking at the movie, what I really liked more than anything else were the original characters that came back, because it's nice to see Han Solo and Princess General Leia after seeing their stories in the original trilogy and having my brother tell me about them for so long. 

The story they tell in this movie is very simple, and I like that people have a clear mission that they need to go on, a mystery to unravel, and it remains clear as everything goes along. With the new characters, I like Finn (John Boyega), because he is really cool. He's obviously trying to be taken seriously, but there are also moments that are really funny.

In terms of the action, there are quite a few scenes that really work in the movie. The final battle manages to be really personal while also feeling big.

My 10-Year-Old Niece
Star Wars History: Has seen all the movies, and her favorite is Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

I like that they use the old models for the ships. 

BB-8 is so cute, and it's like all he wants is to be cute and cuddly. And he succeeds.

They set you up too much for the next movie. It needs a decent ending, but instead it's all anticipation for the sequel.

My 15-Year-Old Cousin
Some Previous Tableau Posts: HERE and HERE
Star Wars History: Has seen all of the movies a number of times.

John Boyega pretty much kills it.
This may seem kind of lame, but unlike the plan to destroy the second Death Star (in Episode 6 – Return of the Jedi), this movie was not a trap. I've been following the trailers and the TV Spots, and I've been really excited. That excitement definitely carried over into the first half of the movie. There are real stakes; characters we love, both old and new, have their lives on the line. Some of my favorites scenes are the re-introductions of classic characters. It is obviously an easy way to connect this film to the classics, but it didn't feel cheap. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a really great new character, and her journey throughout the film is a lot of fun to watch. I wonder if the next films will go into the characters' past at all, because we still don't really know much about her or Finn.

Some of the plot twists come out of nowhere and really surprised me, even if others kind of fizzle. The movie definitely has some not-great moments in the middle – there's a lot of preparing and talking that takes away from the story. With the lull in the middle, I was worried that the movie was going to fizzle out. But then it roars forward in the last 30 minutes to create some of my favorite scenes and moments from any Star Wars movie. The lightsaber battle near the end (with characters that we won't spoil here) is fantastic. 

J.J. Abrams did not disappoint, and I would recommend the movie to anybody (Star Wars fan or not), because it's that good.

Star Wars History: Has seen Episodes 4-6 and Episode 1, Hated Episode 1 so much that she stopped going to see the prequels.
Rey's a bad-ass mother who don't take
no crap off of nobody

The film is action-packed, totally fun, and in line with the original movies in a great way, but the relationships between characters, especially when the movie is trying to build romantic relationships, is super lame and poorly written. Without getting into spoilers, the moments between Han and Leia feel particularly forced.

Also, I understand what the movie is trying to do, but there is too much mirroring of the original films. It needs to work harder to be its own movie. As is, it feels too tied to the originals.

Finally, after a lot of lead up, the plan in the last bit of the film is figured out really quickly without much thought put into it. Like, all of the characters get jammed together and have to figure out how to destroy the enemy. This is supposed to be a long-gestating rebellion, and they make up their plan and put it into action in like 20 minutes. What was the resistance doing before Han, Rey, and Finn show up?

Some Previous Tableau Posts: HERE and HERE
Star Wars History: Has seen all the movies, but can't really remember Episodes 1-3, even though he took me/went with me to see all of them.

It's a fine movie, but overall I wish that there had been more innovation. It felt a little too standard and too tied to the other movies. These filmmakers have the world at their fingertips, and their output is pretty disappointing. It seems like the edict from on high was "make it bigger" more so than "make it better." You loved the Death Star, get ready for a BIGGER Death Star, etc. They could have made the conclusion so much more than it was.

The movie also seems to make empty homages.  In particular, the "cantina" scene is a completely wasted opportunity. It could have been mind-blowing, full of new creatures and fun moments. Instead, it was rushed and seemed to exist for no other reason than to give the audience a scene in a bar because that was something they liked in Episode 4. If you're going to do an homage, it needs to be stronger. There need to be new levels.

In terms of characters, they were interesting. Rey was wonderful, and I like that there was a clear female lead.  I didn't mind Finn in general. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) was a wasted opportunity. There's some good development there, but it just feels like things weren't really well thought out.

Not going to talk about the prequels, because I don't remember them, but this movie was definitely worse than 4, 5, and 6.

Tableau (Me)
Star Wars History: Has seen all the movies a number of times, in particular Episodes 4-6. Own a bootleg DVD of the Holiday Special. I also attended midnight screenings of Episodes 1, 2, and 3.

Looking back at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it's clear how much pressure was on Disney and J.J. Abrams to make a film that would satisfy Star Wars fans, bring in new viewers, prove the viability of the franchise, and clean the nasty taste the three prequel films left in people's mouths. Before I get into the many things that I loved about the new Star Wars film, let me first say that one weakness is speed. Unlike many blockbusters, which feel bloated with unnecessary plot and wheel spinning, This movie feels too short. There are so many amazing moments, but nothing has the chance to breathe. More than that, characters rarely have enough time to react appropriately to the events. By the time the audience is done experiencing to a big moment, the movie has already moved on to their next set piece. In some ways, this is in the DNA of Star Wars films. No one weeps for Alderaan. But this is also the franchise that gave us a minute-long funeral pyre for the ostensible main villain. When tragedy happens, or when amazing things happen, it would be nice to spend some time appreciating them.

Long Live Maz Kanata
That being said, I truly loved this movie. For me, a lot of this comes down to character. J.J. Abrams is incredibly adept at giving people exciting characters with nuanced motivations and interesting interplay. Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), BB-8, and more are all such delightful additions to the canon. Sure, Finn's introduction is muddled and Rey's development is rushed, but they're all such rich characters who feel like living, breathing people. Being a big fan of Yoda, my favorite addition to the franchise is Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), a force-sensitive, orange-colored, ancient pirate with a penchant for philosophizing and fun one-liners. As you can see from my brand-new avatar, I'm in love, and I can't wait to see how she's utilized in the next few films.

Harrison Ford is also really good here, which is not something I was expecting. His journey in the film, despite some weaknesses in the final act, is really captivating, and his scenes with Rey and his moments with Leia and Chewbacca really crackle. There's life in that drug-addled face. I know it!

The action moments really sing in this film, which is not something Abrams has previously been praised for. But, his action sequences here (much like the ones he created in Alias) work because there is character investment on both sides. When Rey and Finn square off against Ren or any number of other villains, you care about the outcome. It's not just sword swinging and gun blasting.

There are a lot of gaps in the film that seem to be set-ups for the sequels, and that's annoying. Rey's mysterious past is a good version of this, but Finn's isn't. And many of my family members' criticisms of the film are correct. Still, J.J. Abrams, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and the rest of the cast and crew created an exciting movie that has really resonated with a lot of people, which is something that didn't seem possible after a year of disappointing blockbusters. There was a lot riding on this film (namely seeing a return on Disney's $4 billion purchase of LucasFilm), and as such it had to check off a number of boxes and not do anything that could compromise the solidity of the franchise. Working within those seemingly narrow confines, they still manage to make something magical.
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