Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Star Wars – Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)


I remember hearing about George Lucas’ nine-part plan for our lives on a bus to summer camp back in the 1980s. I thought that sounded like the most ambitious and exciting turn of events I could conceive of. Nine Star Wars movies were too much to hope for. For nearly a decade it really was. Then we got the prequels, and most of us just hoped that Lucas would stop, please stop. But then Disney stepped in, brought along J. J. Abrams and we were looking at nine movies again. Was this A New Hope? Or was the Disney Empire about to strike out?


You’d think that after blowing up the second Death Star the galaxy far far away would have learned its lesson. Alas, that is not the case. From the ashes of the Galactic Empire arose the First Order and their dark Jedi commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is seeking out Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who vanished after his attempt to resurrect the Jedi order failed. Once the first order finds and kills Skywalker they have an open door to the rest of the galaxy.

Standing in their way is the Resistance, organized by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). She’s sent her best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to retrieve the coordinates of Skywalker’s last known address. But the First Order comes around and mucks it all up. The coordinates end up in a droid named BB-8, who meets a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Before you can say “Help me Han Solo, you’re my only hope”, Rey meets up with an ex-stormtrooper named Fin (John Boyega) and everyone’s favorite smuggler duo: Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew). A series of adventures explode across the screen as our heroes try to stay one step ahead of the First Order who are convinced that these events are leading to an awakening in the Force.

Good Points:
  • A superb cast delivers a solid script (with a surprising amount of humor)
  • Brings back the show, don’t tell, style of the original trilogy
  • Feels like a natural extension of the first three films 

Bad Points:
  • Or it is pretty much a rehash of A New Hope with a splash of new paint
  • Some of the design choices seem to miss the fact that Return of the Jedi happened
  • The death of a major character may be too much for some fans


You want to have a great time in the Star Wars universe, then The Force Awakens may be your movie. Bursting with interesting new characters, familiar faces, plenty of great humor and lots of action, the seventh movie in the franchise is a blast. It is also overly familiar and some viewers may find that familiarity off putting. For me it was just what 2-1B ordered. For the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to the next adventure in the Star Wars series.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review

New opening crawl, same old ALL CAPS words.
Well let’s get this out of the way. You aren’t going to please everyone. That’s just a basic issue with making any kind of art or entertainment. Once Disney got involved with Star Wars we all knew that they were sure going to try to please everyone (and market as much merchandise as possible), but Disney’s track record in the first part of the 2010s was pretty good. They are focusing more on developing memorable characters and stories. We also had J.J. Abrams on board for The Force Awakens, and like or dislike his work, it is hard to ignore the fact that he crafts entertainment that appeals to a lot of people.

Finn's feeling a little blue after Rey is knocked out.
The big Bantha in the room is the simple fact that the prequel films did more to discourage long time fans than make new ones. There are good things about those films (I wrote a blog about ten of them) but for the most part the films aren’t nearly as satisfying for long time fans. Disney’s goal was to bring back those old fans, and create a new fan base. This meant bringing back the feel of the original trilogy and crafting new characters that are intriguing and exciting to the audience.

The approach was to saturate the new with the mood and feel of the old. From what I’ve seen, reaction to The Force Awakens is impacted by how the familiarity turns into fan service for you. If the movie crosses the line too often than the whole endeavor feels horribly calculated – something Disney is notorious for doing. But if you enjoy the mix, then suddenly you’re having a great time with a Star Wars film, and for a lot of fans that is reason enough to celebrate.

Jacket thief!
The visual aspects of this movie are a perfect mirror of that philosophy. A strong effort was made to show old time fans that this was a Star Wars movie as they remembered it. Gone are the extravagant green screen sets. Gone were the over the top lightsaber battles filled with CG characters doing the impossible. Gone were the hoards of CG troopers swarming a CG world. Instead you had location shooting, actual bodies on the screen, weight and gravity for the lightsaber battles and firefights, and the movie was shot on actual Kodak film, instead of using digital techniques.

Trapped between a droid and tough gal.
Most of the costume and character design follows the same pattern. We have Han Solo wearing his jacket from Empire Strikes Back, the pilot outfits for both sides harkens back to the original trilogy in a lot of ways. Hell, the whole First Order looks like they just took the Empires template for everything and gave it a few more curves and extensions and boom – there you go.

The effect is obvious, The Force Awakens looks like it is a natural extension of the original trilogy. That is often a complaint leveled at the prequels, that they never felt tied to the Star Wars universe until the second half of Revenge of the Sith.

Han Solo tours - bringing the best of the galaxy to you.
But then you have some of the over-playing the hand that I mentioned earlier. So A New Hope had three primary locations: desert planet, metal planet and jungle planet. The Force Awakens has three major locals: desert planet, metal/snow planet and forest planet. Yes you have a couple tweaks to the visuals, but for the most part the fact is you could swap out Jakku for Tatooine and no one would really know the difference. The inside of Star Killer base looks a lot like the inside of the Death Star, but that I can forgive. It was built by a group inspired by the Empire after all. But the forested planet we explore in the second half of the film could easily be the love child between Yavin and Endor. The biggest visual change is the final planet we see in the film, where Luke Skywalker awaits. Those grey islands in the mist are unlike anything else we’ve seen in the series.

TIE is TIE no matter what trilogy you are watching.
Then there’s the matter of the space ships. It is great to see the Millennium Falcon again. I like the replacement dish on top after the old one was scraped off in Return of the Jedi, but it seems that is the only technology that admits Return of the Jedi happened. By the time of The Force Awakens you’d think that fighter evolution would have continued from the B-wings, A-Wings and TIE Interceptors of the third film. But instead we get slightly revamped versions of the X-wings and TIE fighters that were old in Return of the Jedi. Now only a big Star Wars geek is even going to notice, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to no include some new ship types in there. Or at least throw in a couple Y-wings if you’re going to borrow from A New Hope.

"They sunk my battleship!"
I will say that the alien and creature design is a lot closer to what we saw in the prequels. This is probably because costumes mixed with CG has allowed film makers to go far beyond the limits of 1970s and 1980s technology. But The Force Awakens keeps things looking more physical when it comes to these new designs. There are plenty of CG only characters in the film, but they don’t stand out as much as the ones in the prequels and it helps that so many practical and physical effects are used. The audience is rarely pulled completely out of the moment, and allows the actors to interact with actual items.

Love the scale in this shot.
Like all the moves that preceded it, The Force Awakens has some really great visual moments. You get scenes where Rey is standing in front of a downed Star Destroyer or AT-AT on Jakku and the scale comes home. You have the enormous holograph of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the cavernous room he appears in. Maz’s forest hideout looks like nothing else in the series and camera captures it well. But the last third of the movie is filled with imagery that will become iconic: Han confronting Kylo Ren, the duel between Rey and Kylo Ren and the final climb to reveal Luke Skywalker all create a visual tapestry that adds a new chapter to Star Wars. The only misstep was the speech General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) gives in full on Hitler mode. It just seemed a bit too much almost to the point where I was chuckling. Of course subtlety was never something Star Wars was ever going for, but that moment just seemed over-ripe.

BB8 does his best Lawrence of Arabia.
The Star Wars series has always been a source of creative and unique sound design. It is safe to say that The Force Awakens provides plenty of great sound work. But here I think the creators went for the more familiar. Not much new material popped out at me in this area. Lightsabers, the Falcon, and blasters all sound like you expect. The most unique new source of sound effects is BB-8 who doesn’t’ sound like R2-D2, but is certainly cut from the same cloth. He is very expressive for only using sound effects.

Leia doubts the veracity of your claim.
For the music there really was no other option, John Williams had to return. When the movie first came out, a lot of film music fans were actually a bit disappointed in the score. But I think it was due to a strange duality. Some fans wanted a score that sounded like Empire Strikes Back. Others wanted a score with the choral majesty of Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace. The thing is Williams’ style changed back in the 1990s. He hasn’t written anything in the style of Empire Strikes Back for decades. Since The Force Awakens is a direct follow up to the original trilogy, the massive choral set pieces don’t make sense. There was very little human voice work in the original trilogy with just Return of the Jedi utilizing it for the Emperor to any great degree.

What Williams fashioned is a Star Wars score through and through, but one in his current style. It has plenty of quotes for older themes including the main Star Wars theme, the Rebel fanfare, Leia’s Theme and Han and Leia’s theme. But most prevalent is the theme for The Force. Williams gives it some glorious treatments in this score. Listeners with sharp ears will hear a subtle nod to Darth Vader’s theme in one cue near the end of the film.

There may be some trust issues here.
The new themes are really impressive. The best of the bunch is the theme for Rey. It has two parts that are very moldable and get a major workout in the film. Kylo Ren also gets a theme with two parts: a bold fanfare and a sinister conflicted theme. Finally you have a brash theme for The Resistance. That one sounds a lot like the theme for the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so I actually get a little distracted by it. I’m in the minority on that one, most people love it.

Wait, is this Tatooine or Arrakis?
Like any good Star Wars score, Williams weaves the themes in and around each other. He comes up with some exciting action music, my favorite revolving around the sequence where Finn and Rey abduct the Falcon. The final duel also has some great scoring as Rey’s theme and Kylo Ren’s theme do battle. But the best cue is the grand finale at the Jedi Steps and into the end credits: wonderful work, and one of my favorite Star Wars scores to date.

Ok, who ordered two craggy old smugglers: to go?
The acting is part of the reason The Force Awakens is so entertaining. One of the big factors is Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo. He brings a great combination of world-weariness and sly charm to the role. It is miles above his performance in Return of the Jedi and his interaction with the new cast and Carrie Fischer turn into the heart of the movie. It is great to have Han truly back. His final moments in the film provide the necessary punch and if Ford hadn’t been committed, I doubt it would have worked as well.

In addition there are some good performances by Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and even Simon Pegg as the greedy Unkar Plutt. Then you have the silent but enigmatic moment with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. That will provide plenty of discussion until the next installment comes out.

The future looks bright. She better wear shades.
As great as the old cast is, the new cast is what makes this movie work. Daisy Ridley is luminous as Rey. She brings so much energy to the role, and you can’t help but like and root for her. I connected so well with her that she ended up in my top ten list offavorite Star Wars characters after only one movie! Equally engaging is John Boyega as Finn. His struggle with his conscience and his interaction with Poe and Han allows us to understand and appreciate him. You get the feeling that he is going to grow as a character as the series progresses. I’m very curious to see where he ends up. Oscar Isaac is also immediately likable as the confident and friendly Poe Dameron. While his screen time is less than the other two, his personality and banter make you wish he was in the movie even more.

Don't tell me mum that I'm planning mass murder.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren does a good job playing this character of conflict. He is menacing and dangerous, but he is also damaged in some way. When his mask comes off, we are surprised by his youth and yet it fits into why he does what he does. We only get part of his story in The Force Awakens, but his actions and desires tell us even more. Driver has plenty of presence and I think they will make good use of it in the coming films. Domhnall Gleeson does a good job in the role of General Hux. He has a fanatical intensity about him that reminds me of General Motti from A New Hope. While I think they lay on the Hitler-esque performance a bit too thick in his big speech, I’m curious to see more of him in the next film. Rounding out the villains is Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke. I’m not terribly fond of this characters appearance – he looks too much like Voldemort from the Harry Potter films. It was actually kind of distracting. Serkis does a lot with his voice and brings gravitas and evil into the role, at the same time his part seemed unnecessary. But that is more of a script issue than anything else.

Couldn't we see her shoot just one person?
Lupita Nyong’o does a very good job as Maz Kanata, the wise alien that puts Rey on the path to The Force. She has some very good banter with Han Solo and the combination of CG and the performance works pretty well. We also get Max Von Sydow in a small but critical role in the opening of the film. Kind of wish we got to know more about him. In the same boat is Gwendoline Christie as the shiny Captain Phasma: silver stormtooper with a cold but deadly attitude. I was hoping to see her kick some kind of ass… but she was barely in the film. Could it be that Disney is setting her up as the next Boba Fett? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

I'm not touching you. Does this bother you?
The script to The Force Awakens has one big plus and one big minus. On the positive side is all the humor and camaraderie in the film. This is the funniest Star Wars film in the series, and I’m not talking about burp jokes, clumsy alien jokes or an endless parade of droid related puns. No, this is actual humor that comes out organically from situations, banter and irony. We haven’t seen this kind of humor in action since The Empire Strikes Back, and you can tell that writers Laurence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt kept the focus on fun. The combination of this approach to the script and the warm performances by the cast is what makes the film work so well in spite of the big minus in the script.

Time to play the HD version of Yar's Revenge!
Familiarity breeds contempt and that is where some viewers may end up when they come to the conclusion that The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope in a different coat of paint. All the plot points are present. All the character moments can be checked off. Some sequences are played out in a nearly identical way. And when the script isn’t cribbing openly from episode four, you can see easy ties to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. As organic as the humor and character moments are, the plot feels very manufactured to deliver the same feelings A New Hope delivered in 1977. To be honest, that is a futile effort. You can’t catch lightening in a bottle twice, no matter how much talent and money you throw at something.

That is my biggest problem with The Force Awakens. It feels manufactured in many scenes. The Starkiller Base is especially bad. It really doesn’t need to be in the film at all. I spent most of my first viewing wondering how stupid the First Order was for building yet another super weapon, when twice before that super weapon was destroyed. It reduced them as a credible threat in a way and hurt the movie.

Don't tell me they stole the Red Matter from Star Trek.
But you begin to wonder if the Starkiller base was something added in later during script development or insisted up by someone at the studio. It just doesn’t fall in with the character driven elements of the story. And when The Force Awakens falters in the script it is because of moments like that. There are few too many scenes of fan service where the movie stops to say “remember how much you liked this from the original trilogy?”. Us old time fans get pandered to a bit too often and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

That said, I understand the approach. The Force Awakens goes out of its way to assure everyone that Star Wars is back, it is fun and it is going to continue the saga in a way that most viewers are going to enjoy. It isn’t ignoring the prequels, but it isn’t using them as inspiration either.

The First Order brings the brutal hammer down.
Balancing all this is J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair. I don’t envy him this task, and yet I think Star Wars is a better fit for him than Star Trek. Abrams’ tendencies toward action and mythic plot structure are in line with the galaxy far far away. Star Trek’s focus on ideas and themes at the core of each movie was something he didn’t seem as interested in. With Abrams helming The Force Awakens we are treated to a movie that moves at a rapid pace. It throws you into the story and never lets up till the end. He sacrifices some background for characters and situations, but so did A New Hope. Instead he relies on the performances and the actions we witness now to carry the film. For the most part it works. He manages to hit that sweet spot of plot, character and entertainment. You could argue that all Abrams had to do was mimic A New Hope and he would have a success, but if you remember all the movies that came out after 1977 that tried and failed to capture what made Star Wars work, you know that isn’t true. Abrams definitely tackled this formidable challenge and gave us a very entertaining Star Wars adventure.

I swear, he let me keep the jacket!
At this point it is easy to say that The Force Awakens works better than any of the prequels because of its ability to craft characters you connect to almost immediately, and create situations that make you want to see what happens next in the story. Both were experiences I never had with the prequels. I also think the script is a lot less messy than Return of the Jedi which really clunks along to get to its powerful conclusion. But A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are superior films that tell better-crafted stories and feel fresh and less manufactured. There is a feeling of caution in The Force Awakens. You almost get the sense that Abrams wasn’t allowed to go too far in any unique direction. I would argue that may have been the best approach for episode seven after the issues with the prequels.

A duel of the fates?
But I will also say that I won’t accept that kind of safe story telling for episode eight. The stage is set for some really interesting plot and character development. I want to see new worlds, new paths and new revelations. I don’t want to see Empire Strikes Back in a new coat of paint. If episode eight forges its new path, than I think those that don’t care for The Force Awakens too much will be willing to accepts its role in the series. But if episode eight continues down this path of manufactured familiarity, we’ll see some disgruntled fans that may be wishing that Lucas were back in the drivers seat.


  1. Nice post. It's interesting how much our revulsion to CGI is more of us looking back to the past with contempt. It certainly didn't help that I was 12 when seeing it for the first time, but I was really impressed by the Phantom Menace CGI, in part because it was one of the first films to do that on a widespread scale. Any bit of 90s CGI seemed like a really big deal, so it's tougher to judge it on our well-known 2016 uncanny valley. Except for Escape from LA. That's really awful.

    1. Yeah I think the revolt against all CGI all the time has to do with the fact that other movies showed us that you can use all kinds of various techniques in your film to create worlds, and by combining those techniques you actually achieve a better result.

      Two good examples are "Jurassic Park" which still looks really good even though the CG is even older than "The Phantom Menace" and "The Lord of the Rings" which used models, in camera tricks and CGI to create Middle Earth.

      For "The Phantom Menace" Lucas was experimenting with his new tool box and I think he went over board. That said he was able to give us two things using CGI that are nearly impossible to do well with practical effects - underwater scenes and scenes showing great speed. Lucas was able to free up his camera during the action scenes, no longer locked into a shot because of motion control computers. I can imagine that was very freeing. But in the end he should have stuck with what he did in his original trilogy - use the visual effect that was best suited for the job. Instead he used a one size fits all approach and these days it just doesn't work nearly as well as Abrams work on "Force Awakens".

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Your enthusiasm shows in your prose. Good point about the too-many-eggs-in-one-basket superweapon. They must have hoped the third time is a charm. Star Wars is so much a part of the culture that we tend to assume everyone has seen the original trilogy, but I've met a surprising number of Millennials who haven't. Or perhaps not so surprising -- I know how uneager I often was to watch 30 or 40-year-old movies at that age. The Force Awakens seems to be a hit with newbies too.

    1. I'm a bit surprised too. I would think their parents would have subjected them to the original trilogy at some point. I also know that many millennials seem to prefer the prequels over the original trilogy because of the faster editing style and visuals. When I run into folks defending the prequels passionately, they turn out to be people who were kids growing up with the movies. I'm wondering how they feel about "The Force Awakens".

  3. I agree with your points. I think Star Wars 8 will have to delve further into some mystery or have some sort of cliffhanger that will compel the audience to want to see the third part. I'd hate to have that hanging over my head. That's a bit of an albatross with these trilogies. Talk about sweating. I think that's one of the bad things that happened with The Matrix trilogies, just more of the same story that the first one set up without furthering along the initial story.

    But I think The Force Awakens was a big enough of a return to lure fans back to the theaters. Whether fans agreed or disagreed on its handling it still succeeded overall. The harder part will be with this next film. I think it already has a certain built-in audience that will return--The Force Awakens did well at the box office, so why not return to see what happens?

    Rogue One I guess is a different story, but I welcome tangents to the cannon. That could be their best bet as you don't have to have all that continuity to keep referring back too and let's face it actors get old so it's just hard to keep doing that, other than the good vs evil premise. Just having stories within that space opera world opens up a lot of ways they could go with things.

    Not everything has to be a hit either. I think if Disney can at least keep the majority satisfied and not over saturate the market they did a good thing with buying the franchise.

    1. I think "the Force Awakens" ending was enough of a question mark that a lot of people will head to the theater just to see what Luke says about his disappearance and what he decides to do next. Finn's fate was left up in the air too. So I think there are plenty of story threads to explore.

      And I don't need Episode 8 to go darker. But I do want it to go in a different path from Empire. If we get Yoda/Luke scenes played out with Luke/Rey, while Finn and Poe are on the run from the First Order constantly attacking only to have someone betray them and Poe begin frozen in carbonite... yeah that isn't going to go down too well.

      I'm really looking forward to "Rogue One" and seeing where it goes. Recent news about reshoots to make the film more humorous do have me worried. I was hoping for a gritty war film in the Star Wars universe with this movie. I think there was plenty of room to play around with that. But maybe the poor performance of the super dark "Batman v. Superman" has made Disney rethink this approach. I hope not. I really think there is room to tell all kinds of stories in the Star Wars universe - dark and gritty ones as well as fun exciting ones.

      As long as the movies make money, Disney will keep cranking them out. But I just hope they don't over-saturate. That is something they do constantly. All those direct to video sequels back in the 1990s and 2000s really harmed their animated cannon. I hope they avoid that.