Here’s where I become the contrary reviewer, disagreeing with almost every other review out there: I didn’t love Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was ok. (Seriously, was every other reviewer given LSD-laced water before hand? I want some of what they had!) For context, I am a massive Star Wars fan. My merchandise collection proves that (I’m allowed to be a grown woman with a Star Wars duvet!). JJ Abrams massively overcorrected for The Force Awakens. He went from producing Star Trek films that had nothing to do with the franchise they derived from to being so concerned about making a Star Wars film that really felt like a Star Wars film that he practically regurgitated A New Hope. No, that’s unfair, there are new characters populating the completely non-sensical plot (full of MacGuffins and heavily telegraphed plot points – let’s face it, Abrams doesn’t do subtle) in a film with a bizarrely inconsistent tone. Was it really so much to ask for a film that felt like a Star Wars film while telling its own story?
I understand that the dialogue in the original trilogy was often sub-par. For me, what really sold the story was the conviction and earnest performance of the actors. They played it all completely straight and we believed the story because they believed it. They got away with clunky lines of utter ridiculous nonsense because of the delivery. That isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of levity in the original trilogy, most notably with Han Solo, but on the whole, it’s a rather serious affair (hell, even the jokes are ridiculous, but again, said so convincingly it didn’t matter). In The Force Awakens, however, they err on the side of comedy. There’s far too much of the ol’ ‘wink, wink’ to the audience and too many characters with comic relief (Poe, Finn, Han, Chewie, BB-8, and even Rey). The tone then starts swinging wildly between serious space adventure to farce, not unlike what M*A*S*H did so well (but The Force Awakens really doesn’t). It was so bad at times, when Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux was on screen I wondered if we’d stumbled into a Spaceballs sequel.
The acting is questionable for much of the film. The opening sequence follows a usually brilliant (and very good looking) Oscar Isaac as he attempts to smuggle a map to Luke Skywalker back to the Resistance (does that plot sound familiar?). But his acting never feels correctly pitched. This doesn’t help when you add in Finn’s character (another fine looking and talented actor, John Boyega) – whose motivations are entirely lacking – who tries to ramp up the comedy factor with physical comedy as well as overwrought comedic dialogue that never quite hits the mark. When Rey talks to BB-8 amongst the sand dunes I couldn’t help but be reminded of Daniel Radcliffe awkwardly trying to talk to Dobby in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – and Daisy Ridley actually had a physical object there with her. The so-called ‘wins’ for female casting, Gwendoline Christie and Lupita Nyong’o, are completely underwhelming. Captain Phasma is completely ineffectual and rather pointless while Nyong’o’s Maz could have been almost anyone (actually, even Phasma could have been anyone, we never see her face). The only one who manages to shine with the content they’re given is Adam Driver, who makes you want to know everything about his backstory for Kylo Ren and what the future might hold.
If you remove your appreciation of the film from the story and focus on the audio-visual elements alone, then Abrams has clearly done well by the franchise. The film does feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe – it is dirty and varied. There are plenty of those one environmental feature planets that we’ve come to know and love replete with bars full of varied aliens. Debris from the war between the Empire and the Rebellion is littered across the Outer Rim and life doesn’t look to be much easier since the New Republic was founded (more on that later…). By sticking to physical effects wherever possible, Abrams has done well to circumnavigate the CGI issues associated with the prequels, creating a much richer, real-feeling universe. And of course, it wouldn’t be Star Wars without the exceptional sound design, something The Force Awakens upholds with honours.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
You might argue that the original trilogy had plenty of similar flaws to the ones I’m holding up against The Force Awakens, but everything in degrees… When it comes to the plot, so much is recycled from A New Hope it is difficult to find the new ideas amongst those that have been regurgitated (there’s also a few plot points from Empire Strikes Back as well). Here is the plot of The Force Awakens as told by this cynical reviewer:
Poe, supposed greatest pilot in the Resistance trades a mysterious old man for part of a map to Luke Skywalker. (Why did Luke disappear, you may ask? Some mumbo jumbo about feeling responsible for Kylo Ren… why leave a map to himself? Why on this completely OTT, ridiculous, convoluted shit to get to him? BECAUSE PLOT!) The First Order and Kylo Ren soon appear and capture Poe, who has handily hidden the map inside his BB-8 unit. BB-8 finds a friend in Rey, a simple scavenger on a desert planet, who helps him look for his master. Meanwhile, an unhappy Stormtrooper (that’s right, he’s worked out that killing people because his boss with the none too subtle Nazi-like iconography says so is wrong) helps Poe break out and crash lands on the same desert planet. He steals Poe’s jacket and bumps into Rey and her new adorable droid pal. Your master’s jacket, you say?! No friggin way!
Rey, Finn and BB-8 blast their way out of the planet with scavengers as well as the First Order hot on their trail. They are soon picked up by none other than smuggler Han Solo and his furry friend, Chewbacca. But Han will do what Han does best – get into trouble. Multiple gangs come looking for their payment and realise he has the fugitives on board – throw in some terrifying aliens, and you’ve got chaos aboard the freighter! Fear not, our heroes escape and head to a lush, green planet with a wise old sage running her version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Rey is immediately drawn to a lightsaber – Anakin’s lightsaber – and drawn into a test of fear and the future (just like Luke in the Degobah cave). What? You mean she’s strong with the force? Who would have guessed! But Rey ain’t ready for that shit and goes running off on her own into the forest only to be captured by big bad Kylo Ren.
The First Order attacks the planet where they’re holed up with the Resistance arriving moments later. But wait! What’s that in the sky? The First Order has built the Death Star 3.0 – it’s about ten times bigger than the originals and destroys half a dozen planets in one go while also killing a star in the process (none of which makes sense: 1) I get space is big, but come on, how did the Resistance miss that?! 2) If it sucks the energy from the star then the planets will die anyway, so it really is ‘overkill’. 3) Why does the First Order want to destroy all these planets? Without the planets they will have no people to control! Just ‘cause they’re evil? Come on! At least the first Death Stars were a show of force and a ways to ‘keep the local systems in line’.). General Leia is doing what she does best –being badass. She convinces a reluctant Solo to join the cause again, sending him and Finn off to rescue Rey and destroy the shield for DS3 (oh wait, there’s Return of the Jedi too!). (Another side note, why is it the Resistance and not the New Republic? What happened to the New Republic? Aren’t they fighting the First Order? Who/what rules the galaxy at the moment? What is the political context? I have no idea!)
Rey escapes, learning she has abilities with the Force (what a quick study!) and catches up with Solo and Finn. They plant the bombs and are headed out when Solo comes face to face with Ren – aka his son. He wants to see the good in his son and approaches the bad-tempered progeny without due care and is appropriately skewered by son’s stupid lightsaber (yep, that’s right… the character that has become the Obi-Wan figure of the film is cut down by a lightsaber at almost the exact beat he is in A New Hope). But don’t worry, the others get away and the Resistance manages to blow up DS3. Rey and Leia go in for a massive hug (despite being total strangers – but I guess they have a connection through the Force or something? Meanwhile Chewie walks straight past Leia after the death of his best friend, work that one out!) for an inordinate amount of time.
For some reason, R2-D2 has been a total dick, sitting ‘dormant’ since ol’ Master Luke went into hiding. But now Rey’s there with her Force mojo and excerpt of the map (that was taken as an excerpt WHY? HOW?!), R2 suddenly wakes up, gives them the full map, and Rey goes off to find Yoda (I mean Luke). … Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention the weird ‘big bad’, Supreme Leader Snoke, aka Gollum meets Lord Voldemort. (What was going on with that character design?)
Am I really the only person who didn’t think this film was the best thing ever? Really? I could go on, there were a lot more problems. But who am I kidding? I’m still going to see it again tomorrow. I’ll still buy the Blu-Ray and excitedly watch all subsequent films. Here Disney, take all my money. I give it willingly. Just please, can you ask the writers for Episode VIII to try for a more original story?
Verdict: The Force Awakens has a lot of action, fun sequences, and feels authentic within the Star Wars universe. Unfortunately it delivers so much of the original trilogy regurgitated in slightly different ways I’m not sure what the point in telling a ‘new’ story was. Where it tried to be different it floundered – too much comedy and plot holes galore – but if you are just going for a mindless good time there’s plenty of spectacle to keep you entertained (and no lens flare!).