STAR WARS

Film Review: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Published On December 21, 2015 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

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STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS
Starring Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Max Von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams and Bryan Burk
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Edited by Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon
Music by John Williams


“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a good film—but definitely not a great film on any level—and the film is adequate and entertaining in a pure popcorn entertainment manner, but certain basic story, dialogue and character aspects, certain plot points and certain directing decisions conspire like the dark side to bring the film down to a derivative, unoriginal mode that keeps the film solidly good for die-hard fans and the casual fans, but the movie is not the upper-tier grand achievement that some devotees hoped the project would be.

The production design, acting and special effects are great to view and enjoy on that grand level—especially the solid, veteran and welcome acting chops from experienced actors Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Max Von Sydow (who is horribly under-utilized), Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew—but they are severely countered by those sticky, touchy, prickly story, dialogue, character and plot points. Alas, at the risk of having one’s head, hands, heart and very soul destroyed by a thousand million light sabers—and due to professional respect, common sense and general professionalism, of course, those very story, character and plot points that bring down the film cannot be fully revealed here, as the story would be ruined for the seven people left after this weekend who have not yet seen the film.

The film is derivative, unoriginal and overly familiar—and that’s a fact, not even opinion. The very original characters from George Lucas’ first space swashbuckler and serial homage pop culture video game funfest, “Star Wars,” from 1977 already—yes, 38 years and billions of dollars in merchandise sales ago—appear in this film, alas, much to the relief of die-hard fans but at a severe, downer cost of being too familiar and thus having the film be too expected, too derivative—and too unoriginal. Harrison Ford—actually, in great form, solid and heroic and funny and comforting and incredibly likeable as swashbuckler, individual-minded, aging-incredibly-gracefully space western rebel Han Solo; Carrie Fisher as the former Princess Leia who is now respectfully, appreciatively and greatly the equally strong, solid and heroic—and refreshingly straight-to-the-point General Leia Organa; Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker; and Anthony Daniels as the ever-funny, fun and incredibly likeable C-3PO; and Peter Mayhew as—also—the strong, solid, reliable, funny and likeable soldier and comrade in arms Chewbacca, all return—yes, in fine form–in “Force Awakens.” That will be a cause for celebration for die-hards and perhaps even many casual fans, but these very characters’ appearances raise the reasonable questions of whether they really need to be here at all, and if it isn’t time to move on to other characters, other settings, other stories and other plot points—and this difficulty with their appearances as characters in the film has absolutely zero to do with the excellent actors portraying these parts.

Actually, it’s the veteran, experienced and quite strong acting performances from Ford, Fisher, Daniels, Mayhew and even Max Von Sydow, again, in that too-short role, that steal the film and help anchor the film to its shaky story foundation. Ford and Fisher especially command the screen—and, again, the film—whenever they are in the frame, and it is a testimony to their talent that you can’t take your eyes off of them, and you care about their characters very much, you feel this rush of excitement and familiarity when you see them in those old, familiar costumes, ships and sets—yet, alas, if you’re human, you can’t help but wonder if it would have been best, in the end, to leave the film and entertainment world’s embrace of Han Solo, Leia and Skywalker where they really should have ended—at the end of 1983’s wonderfully-entertaining “Return of the Jedi.” Why not let all of those characters rest with that film? Why bring them back? “Force,” in the end, doesn’t do justice to the return of these now-classic characters’ on an epic, grand scale. Their appearance in this film 38 years later tends to cry out for desperateness and an over-extended attempt to simply attach to the heartstrings of longtime fans simply to appease their gut feelings—at the expense of producing a film that is wholly new, original, fresh and inventive.

And that overall, instinctive, underlying feeling of desperateness, derisiveness, familiarity and unoriginality is one of the several major story, character and plot points that impede the film’s overall success.

Part of this core aspect of “Force” is the major malady afflicting film for at least the past forty or so years—and especially during the past fifteen years, to the major overall detriment of the film industry—Acute Film Sequelitis (AFS). The unoriginal, desperate and anything-to-make-a-quick-buck thinking of too many shortsighted Hollywood suits has led to this horrendous outbreak of AFS to the point of increasingly diminishing returns in the film industry–not so much diminishing box office returns, but diminishing box office quality, intelligence, depth, smartness, cleverness and originality returns. AFS has also led to the unfortunate production of dozens of below-average—sometimes outright awful—sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and reimaginings that may have indeed made money at the box office (but not all of them), but they have also brought down the reputation and quality of moviemaking in just about every other area of film. Among the detritus Hollywood has left on the littered pop culture landscape are, alas, three “Star Wars” prequel sequels that, one could argue, didn’t need to be made at all: “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999); “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002); and “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)—ten years ago.

The bottom line remains the same—not the monetary bottom line, but the intellectual bottom line—with the “Star Wars” series, the “Star Trek” series (there are several in that series that were huge mistakes, but not the classic second, fourth and sixth films with the original cast), and, of course, the over-extended, over-done “Twilight,” “Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Harry Potter,” “Avengers,” “Hulk,” “Iron Man,” “Fantastic Four,” “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” “Superman” and “X-Men” series. Enough already! Taken as a whole, most of the films in these series were below-average, most didn’t really need to be made, and most of these series could have stopped after the first film, or, in the “Potter” series, after the fourth film.

One of the major, important, underlying aspect of AFS is that, in the real world, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of science-fiction, fantasy and horror novels, novellas, short stories and even urban legend stories that exist, are loved by millions, are read, are enjoyed, are talked about—and have never been made into a movie. This treasure trove of actual, existing, underused storytelling is the filmic source and well that Hollywood suits should be using to produce quality sci-fi, fantasy and horror films. The stories are there. They exist. And they have not been produced into quality films.

That is one of the major problems when considering unoriginal films that appear overly familiar: There are so many existing excellent stories just waiting to be made into quality films. This resource is what producers, directors and writers should be using to craft quality genre films—but they aren’t. And why is that important when discussing “Force Awakens?” Because watching this film, that overriding mood and aura of over-familiarity can tend to override the basic experience of watching and enjoying the film, and deep inside the recesses of the brain, that question still awakens: Couldn’t the producers, director and writers have found something new to tell, some new stories, some new characters, some new locations, sets, plots and subplots? The answer is yes, they could have. If they weren’t so lazy, unoriginal, money-grubbing and greedy.

Another basic story, character and plot point problem with “Force Awakens” is, well, the basic story and plot of the film. “Force Awakens” occurs thirty years after the end of “Jedi’s” story, as the rebels have won their war against the dark side, yet the rebels’ leader and one of the last great Jedis, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into major sulk mood and has disappeared. And he disappears while a new, growing militaristic threat (a not subtle allegory to the Nazis and Nazi Germany, in speech, name, appearance, goals and even torture) called The First Order (an all-too-obvious play on The Third Reich—duh!) is increasing in power, utilizing parts of the dark side, using the familiar white stormtroopers and led by a new, spooky, powerful, creepy and effectively scary and ominous Supreme Leader Snoke, superbly played by this generation’s Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, Andy Serkis. Serkis yet again delivers a stand-out effects-and-make-up-laden performance in “Awakens”—as he did in the “Lord of the Rings” films and in Peter Jackson’s excellent remake (one of the few that is excellent in recent years) of “King Kong.” Serkis, also, in his brief scenes, helps steal the film. He is captivating every time he appears on screen. But the problem is—why would the Jedis’ leader, Skywalker, simply disappear, to the point that no one in the increasingly threatened galaxy knows where he is? Why? That appears cowardly and even childish. Since when do great leaders simply disappear when their followers’ very existence is threatened? The very premise is shaky to start with—and the quest to find Skywalker is simply the core, the essence, the main plot point of the film! Simply put, the movie and story revolves around Skywalker disappearing, but it never really makes great sense that a warrior and leader such as Skywalker would just simply disappear. That plot point just doesn’t make sense, even suspending disbelief. That plot point just doesn’t work.

So to have the major plot point shaky to start with—again, why would Skywalker just disappear from his leadership post with the rise of the First Order?—tends to lend a dark overcast to the film that the story never quite shakes off. Everyone is running around the universe trying to find a map to lead to Skywalker’s location—including Solo, Organa, the dark side, the Supreme Leader and a bevy of young Resistance soldiers.

It is this quest for the map, and to subsequently find Skywalker, that drives the film. A young salvage merchant, Rey (a spunky, attractive and capable Daisy Ridler, who is energetic, lively and effective, but still lacking in that classic presence that Ford, Fisher, Sydow and Serkis all have) runs across a renegade stormtrooper-gone-good named Finn (John Boyega, boyish, wide-eyed, energetic, but not quite up to the same heroic, lovable and likeable level as Ford, Fisher and Hamill in the original three films, and, at times, seeming to be trying far too hard) and a droid, BB-8, who carries the all-important map that could lead to Skywalker’s whereabouts. BB-8 was separated from his owner, a Resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac, thoroughly likeable, energetic, strong and the best actor among the younger members of the cast; alas, he’s the least-used member of the young cast, so the best of the lot is seen the least—go figure). Thus, through various machinations, Rey, Finn and BB-8 struggle to find a missing piece of the map to find Skywalker, while continually evading The First Order, led by Snoke and his right-hand dark side leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, fine when he’s wearing his scary Darth Vader mask and cloak, but far less scary and threatening when the mask is gone—not because of Driver’s looks, of course, but because he’s presented as a conflicted young man—we’ve seen this before, too—caught between the dark side and the forces of good. So when the mask is off, so is the effectiveness of the character relating to the central conflict necessary to drive the story and plot). The First Order, Snoke, Ren and assorted henchmen, thugs, informants, oddball aliens and stormtroopers are constantly waging war and chasing after Rey, Finn, BB-8 to get the map to find Skywalker and kill him—and they are constantly trying to kill Rey, Finn and BB-8, also.

Sydow plays Lor San Tekka, a wise adviser to Poe who provides the map that could lead to Skywalker. Again—it is another altogether weak story, character and plot point to introduce the great Sydow, with an intriguing character, early in the film, under-utilize this actor and this character—and to never introduce Tekka in the film after the film’s first few minutes. One could argue that Tekka—played so well by Sydow—should have been a major character and force in the plot throughout the film, alongside Ford and Fisher, and that would indeed have contributed to a better movie. Instead, Tekka is seen for a fleeting first few minutes—and never seen again. Some viewers could spend the rest of the film waiting to see if Tekka—played by Sydow—resurfaces again. Tekka, again, should have been a major character throughout the film.

Besides the bevy of questionable story, character and plot points, the script’s dialogue is clichéd, familiar, unoriginal—and, often, seen coming from light years away. There’s not much depth, not much insight, not even some comfortable, English 101 literary references and light satire that contributed so much to the depth, insight and intelligence of the better “Star Trek” films. It’s not too difficult to thrown in a quick literary reference, a psychological insight, a deep thought, or, heck, even a reading of a familiar passage of wisdom from a past sage. The better “Trek” films did this so well, the literary references added several layers of depth, intelligence and intellectualism to films that already had intricate, well-developed plots, well-rounded, lovable and moving and classic characters and characterizations, and thrilling, classic good-versus-evil and heroism motifs, themes, messages and stories. This same level of depth, alas, is lacking in these areas in “Awakens.”

The production design of “Awakens” is excellent from start to finish. The credits here go to the cinematographer (Daniel Mindel) and his camera crews, the editors (the film is fast-paced—possibly too fast-paced for its own good, another downfall of many modern films—but edited excellently, keeping the timing and pacing always at a top level), and the production designers, set designers, costumers, make-up artists (the make-up for various aliens and creatures, and for Serkis’ Supreme Leader, are superb), props and model masters (the ships, weapons, armor and uniforms are excellent throughout), special and visual effects artists, animators, art directors—and location managers. Several beautiful, breathtaking “Awakens” scenes were apparently shot on location at quite exotic locales in Iceland, Abu Dhabi and England that add to the film’s overall excellent visual look, feel, atmosphere and design. And the various interior and exterior sets and establishing shots are excellent, also—the various ships, desolate planets, futuristic villages and futuristic battlegrounds are all presented in a constant state of top-flight production design.

The special and visual effects are state-of-the-art, and the action sequences in the film shine. Battles between Resistance forces and First Order soldiers in their respective well-designed ships are consistently exciting and suspenseful, and even—sigh—overly-familiar light saber battles are staged, choreographed and performed well. The numerous stuntmen deserve credit, also, for well-staged hand-to-hand, or light saber-to-light saber, fight scenes.

Yet, again, even the most expensive, top-of-the-line, A-list, professionally-designed and presented and big-budget, well-acted and well-produced genre films can falter if their basic story remains, at its core—no matter the expense, design, look and quality of all other filmic aspects—-derivative, unoriginal, shaky and full of plot points that are questionable. And, again, it is these aspects that tend to bring down “Awakens” from great to simply good.

And what are some of the other plot points that are questionable in “Awakens?” Also, two of them cannot be discussed here—viewers will have to see the film for themselves. The subsequent discussions, questions and analyzing should prove to be quite interesting in the wake of this film.

In the end, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” despite its troubles, weak aspects and story, character, dialogue and plot point problems, does remain a good film. It is a diverting, Saturday afternoon, popcorn entertainment 135 minutes at the movies. It is enjoyable, fun, entertaining—but likely also instantly forgettable. The film also doesn’t have a solid ending—its ending—horribly—seems to exist only to lead to the next sequel, and does not complete the film on a wholly satisfying level. Yet another story and plot construction problem in this and other recent modern-day genre sequels—the complete lack of a complete, satisfying ending.

“Awakens” does not reach the excellent, intelligent and original levels of science fiction so ably displayed in recent years by “Looper,” “Gravity” and “The Martian”—three quality, excellent science fiction films that “Awakens” should have aspired to be, on many levels. Also, “Awakens” doesn’t quite make it to that level.

Disney—the Disney purchase of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” baby is also part of the overriding problem with “Awakens” and the current status of the franchise—has already announced two more “Star Wars” sequels—to be released in 2017 and 2019. Sigh. Many sighs. Lucas should have sold the “Star Wars” franchise to any company except Disney, which today, in 2015, is too big, too corporate, too commercial, too money-grubbing, too greedy, too plastic, too formulaic, and too everything. Why Lucas did this—despite his many statements and interviews and news stories—in many ways remains an enduring mystery for many people. The sale to Disney just doesn’t make any sense. There were so many other, better choices for Lucas than Disney. And it’s not a good fit—just as Pixar and Marvel are not good fits for Disney. Even ABC and ESPN aren’t good fits for Disney. Because Disney was simply best when it stuck to quirky, goofy family movies, amusement parks and a weekly television show that was loved for decades. That’s the Disney we all knew and loved. The Disney of today, 2015—which, unfortunately, now includes the “Star Wars” franchise—is far removed from the beloved Disney of past years. And the company’s horribly scary dark side—it’s over-reaching corporatization and commercialization of everything it touches—is indeed as scary as the dark side of the “Star Wars” stories.

Lucas would have been much better off either keeping his baby in the family, and not selling it off to the highest bidder, or selling it to a much more intelligent, quality and inventive company.

Let’s hope that the “Star Wars” sequels in 2017 and 2019 leave behind the past, leave behind the overly-familiar characters, bring some new stories, characters, dialogue and plot points to the screen, and are better than “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In the meantime, may the force be with “Star Wars” and its casts and crews.

 

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